Academic Integrity and Accessibility
In 1997, Sally Scott asked “how much is enough” in her article “Accommodating College Students with Learning Disabilities: How Much is Enough?” Noting the need to strike a balance between the student’s needs and the academic integrity of the course, Scott argued for a creation of a dynamic nondiscriminatory standard that, it must be recognized, is both applicable in a given moment, but is also subject to revision and re-articulation as new needs and challenges arise. Her advice remains more relevant than ever. Given that 5-8% of students, regardless of the institution’s size, utilize an office of disability services in the US, and given that this rate only seems to be rising (at my school, the rate is closer to 15%), the question must be: how do we approach situations related to academic dishonesty when a student’s disability is wrapped into the situation? How can we create inclusive, accessible spaces that consider the student’s mental health and/or physical needs, as well as the school’s academic integrity guidelines?
These questions mean two different concerns for academic integrity councils: one, how do we approach disability and mental health in the investigation and hearing or sanction process and two, how do we create meeting spaces that are accessible?
For our school, we often have students experiencing mental health concerns. Thus, as chair of the honor council, I actively work with our Executive Director of Counseling, Outreach & Health Services Counseling and Disability Support Services Office and our Director of the Office of Accessibility to be proactive regarding the needs of students. The directors are aware of our investigation and hearing process and if they have concerns about a student, perhaps one undergoing a mental health crisis, we work to make sure our hearing process is not causing further, undo harm. This may mean that a counselor or trusted individual is present in all our meetings for the student; it may mean that we hold the hearing in a space that will not cause additional mental distress; it may mean that we pause a hearing if the situation is becoming overwhelming; it may mean that the hearing committee leaves the room for a few minutes to enable a student to feel ready to continue; it may mean that the student provides written testimony to the evidence presented; finally, it means asking the student how we can accommodate their needs. What it does not mean is that our investigation or hearing process is compromised, nor does it mean that mental health can be an excuse for academically dishonest behavior; instead, it is about recognizing and supporting the needs of our students so that they can (hopefully) move past the moment of academic dishonesty and have a successful student career.
Part of our responsibility is educating ourselves as directors, coordinators, chairs and our council members—faculty, staff, and student– on how to respond to and be mindful of various disability concerns. To that end, I encourage academic honor councils to be versed in basic ADA law (the definition of disability, title II, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act). I also argue that members should learn about signs associated with a mental health problem, how to immediately respond to that situation, and who to call in that situation. Another consideration is the use of person-first language that focuses on abilities not limitations (for example, a person has a wheelchair, not that person is crippled).
In addition to creating accessible processes for determining academic dishonesty, we also need to consider our actual hearing spaces. Below are some tips that we have considered in terms of our actual hearing space, but a helpful, more exhaustive list is available here. We recently moved our hearing location to a space on campus that was accessible for all students—that had automatic doors; literal space around the conference table for wheelchairs, canes and other mobility aids; space for a personal assistant; space for a service animal; that is distraction free; that has adjustable lighting; and that has no carpeting or other barriers. Finally, a related concern is formatting materials so that individuals have access to electronic files or large print materials.
I also hope to make it clear that while disability should not be an excuse for academic integrity, not being considerate of disability is inexcusable and discriminatory. At my institution, our procedures are flexible enough to accommodate concerns. Finally, we are composing an accessibility statement for our academic honor council to make clear what it considers “reasonable accommodations” in academic dishonesty situations. I encourage other institutions to do the same.
Scott, Sally. “Accommodating College Students with Learning Disabilities: How Much is Enough?” Innovative Higher Education (1997) 22: 85.