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Levelling the Playing Field

The role of accommodations in academia
By: Hillary Jones, Contributor
Posted on October 16, 2017

Lakehead, like all other universities and businesses in Ontario, is required to comply with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). If you’ve had a job in Ontario at any point in your life, you’ve likely been told about the AODA along with other standard workplace trainings like WHMIS. When you’re sitting through these often monotonous training days, it can be easy to lose sight of the relevance of these policies to our daily lives. However, as midterm season is upon us, one university policy relating to the AODA may become more prominent: accommodations.

Here at Lakehead, accommodations are arranged through the Student Accessibility Services (SAS), located in SC0003. Their website states that: “Accommodations are meant to remove barriers and level the playing field for students with temporary and/or permanent disabilities and/or medical conditions while maintaining the academic integrity of their course or program.”

This sounds like a great idea one based in an equitable approach to academic evaluation. But why then do we have so many peripheral conversations happening about accommodations? It is not entirely uncommon for individuals without accommodations to comment, privately or otherwise, about the ‘unfair advantage’ given to some students who are allotted extra time for an exam. Similarly, some students have noted that certain professors have at times, seemed quite reluctant to provide accommodations in their courses. And then of course there is the omnipresent issue of stigma surrounding accessing accommodations.

The tone of these various peripheral conversations doesn’t jive with the well-intended ‘levelling of the playing field’ noted on the SAS website. Somewhere there seems to be a disconnect between the provincial policies and university policies and the general perception of accommodations, the root of which may be found in the above-stated quote from the SAS website. Accordingly, accommodations should not affect “the academic integrity of [the student’s] course or program.” Taking a course with an accommodation should not make it easier for the student; it should make it fairer.

It can be a subtle difference, but it is an important distinction to make when considering accommodation options and it all boils down to a question of what is really being evaluated academically. What is the professor really trying to test with that particular exam or teach in a specific course? Is the purpose of the test to measure how many math problems the student can solve? Or is the purpose to measure how many math problems the student can solve in three hours? Is the course designed to teach critical thinking, or critical thinking under pressure?

For some things, time matters. For others, it might not. If time matters, an accommodation involving having extra time would interfere with the integrity of the course.

Determining whether the accommodation is relevant to what is being assessed can be challenging. Differences in opinion on this question likely cause a lot of the controversy around the ‘fairness’ of accommodations.

The university does acknowledge that there are some ongoing issues regarding accommodations. In the minutes from the May 2016 meeting, the Senate Committee for Teaching and Learning makes note that there is an ad-hoc committee on accessibility that is reviewing the university policy regarding accommodations. Dr. Mirella Stroink, chair of the psychology department, told The Argus: “We need an open and ongoing scholarly debate and discussion where evidence can be identified and shared, and best approaches to accommodating disabilities continually identified and refined.”

Each one of us is unique and in some cases accommodations do work to effectively ‘level the playing field’ for students. However, our conversations, both officially and unofficially, would benefit from developing a critical understanding of the influence of various accommodations. If we are able to agree more clearly on what is being tested, we will be able to develop a more informed opinion regarding the appropriate use of accommodations.

We are all responsible for the tone of the peripheral conversations. Regardless of policy or personal opinion on the ethics of accommodations, we are each responsible for engaging in this dialogue and examining these questions from a place of respect.

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