Reasonable Accommodation for All
By Amita Dhanda
Even as educationists are aware that one size does not fit all, most of education aims to fit individuals into pre-conceived molds. This freezing of liquid personas into rigid shapes is termed standardization. The non-standard, be it in mind, or body, imagination or expression, is not acknowledged or accepted but abandoned. The expelled, the mal-adjusted, the indisciplined or the failures: this is how the system records the existence of those who do not fit into its molds, do not conform to its standards. When the story is so told there is no need to revisit the casing, the mold, the standard, or the norm.
Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences brought home that our educational systems by privileging the verbal, logical –mathematical intelligence, leaves at least nine other kinds of intelligences untended. The exceptional or the driven strike out, but the ones with aptitudes and inclination do not get the space to grow and develop, as our educational systems celebrate the prototype and spare little space for the other. The flattening propensities of educational administration was also brought home by Ivan Illich, who bemoaned how people survived educational institutions, did not flourish in them. Yet garnering diversity and difference is not the dominant mode of organizing the educational system. The unrelenting resistance to disability inclusion, class and caste neutral classrooms is a case in point. School management after management are agreeable to run special classes for students from weaker sections of society but are unwilling to pluralize their classrooms, even as the benefits of a diverse classroom have been long established.
In higher education, the choice based credit system is an effort to induct student interest and choice into the system of learning. The idea is that people study what they like and not what the administration and administrators consider is good for them. The system to succeed needs flexibility, which requires a willingness to change. Flexibility is often perceived as non- standard and hence inferior, which sets in motion the forces of standardization. This challenge of diversity, whilst important is not a killer or at least not unless the failure to adjust is diagnosed as pathology. In the absence of learning options, which cater to their interests people either drop out or grit teeth and survive and then do their own thing. I wish to raise concerns about those who cannot obtain an institutional deference of their difference and hence are cannon fodder to the standardization machine. The politics of identity dents into the ruling stereotype by showing that it is only majoritarian passing off as universal, a process, by which the challengers get cast as the other. Individuals are thus forced to choose between the mainstream and the alternative. A Dalit woman with disability is each of these identities but educational administrations would require her to choose between any one of her intersected identities. Even as Dalit and Gender studies admit to the reality of intersectionality, there is constant pressure to subscribe to a dominant construct or to breakaway and create an alternative identity.
Unlike other social identities, difference is written into the heart of the construct of disability. Difference subsists not just between impairments that is mental, physical, intellectual, developmental and sensory but within each impairment grouping. Such large presence of diversity makes creation of dominant constructs difficult. Thus the only trait which can be universally adopted without dispute is the trait of difference. Unlike the standardized molds of educational administrators, disability rights activists advocate for customized molds. The principle of reasonable accommodation by focusing on outcomes allows general norms to be so customized that they result in inclusion. The principle is general and universal as it aims to obtain substantive equality for all. This generality is in no way discounted by the fact that the application of reasonable accommodation shall always be individualistic and particular.
I began this paper by referring to human diversity and how general education has recognized the commonalities and ignored difference. Such indifference has generated human costs but systems have not assumed responsibility for this failure. The Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995 reserved the participation of persons with certain named impairments (blind, deaf, orthopedic disability) into higher education. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) has secured the right to higher education for all persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others. This guarantee extends to all persons with disabilities and the right to reasonable accommodation. Should this right be only extended to persons with disabilities or should it be extended to all students? In terms of strict regulation, it is believed that the benefits of the principle should only be extended to persons with disabilities. Human Rights on the other hand are universal and indivisible. Article 1 of the UNCRPD states that “Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others” This description should be extended to anyone whose departure from the general norm could result in exclusion from social participation. By forging this connection, disability human rights deepen the equality discourse for all and pluralize social inclusion.
Intersectionality speaks to the fluidity of identity. By showing the interconnections between identities it calls cabined spaces to question. The principle of reasonable accommodation articulated in the UNCRPD “allows necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments … where needed in a particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms”. It is my contention that the benefit of this principle needs to be extended to all persons when normative arrangements prevent them from enjoying all human rights and fundamental freedoms. This extension is especially called for in the realm of education, as non-recognition of difference here, could prevent the development of capabilities, which are required for the enjoyment of freedoms.
Such extension is also needed to inform empathies. I have often found, in my experience as a teacher, that students are more empathetic to the pain of another when their own pain is recognized. Further any system of reparation and support is more sustainable when it is accessible to all, rather than a select few. A selective coverage requires much time and investment to identify the beneficiaries of a programme. And the fear of being over inclusive causes many a deserving claimant to be left out.
In a real time effort of walking our talk, National Academy of Legal Studies and Research, Hyderabad (NALSAR), the University in which I teach, adopted a policy of reasonable accommodation, which was not limited in its operation to persons with disabilities alone. Instead the University extended the benefits of the Policy to all students who were able to demonstrate disadvantage; as well as to students who were in evident need of it. The second category was adopted in recognition of the fact that all students are not able to plead their own case. Often a structural disadvantage is processed by the student as an individual deficit. As a result, the accommodation, which could be reasonably claimed, is not asked for. To avoid such a situation, the academic administration proactively reached out to students in distress or in evident need of support be it because of language difficulties, unfamiliar cultural expectations or unfamiliarity of discipline. Social alienation, economic hardship and academic difficulties have not been seen as disconnected silos, instead their interconnection is recognized in devising support and customizing solutions.
It is pertinent to point out that these pro-active efforts have increased the number of students who have started to seek help on their own. Since accommodation is universally available, the fact that some need it more than others is a fact, which is accepted without rancor or resentment. The number of students who have been able to recover from personal and academic stumbles has substantially increased.
Since compassion also enlists its own team of free riders, the universal implementation has thrown up challenges of distinguishing between the genuine and the fake. There is a continuous need to ask what is reasonable and what is not. What kind of accommodation could be an undue burden for the university and at which point the university may need to give up on a student. In the four years that the policy has been in operation at NALSAR, accommodation is no longer viewed as reasonable when a student becomes a passive recipient and fails to engage with the system. Occasionally, punitive measures such as threat of detention have caused students to assume responsibility. In the case of one or two students, even this has not worked as the students’ needs for individual attention were way beyond the resources of the University. This is how undue burden in understood at NALSAR. The NALSAR experience convinces me of the need to extend reasonable accommodation to all, so that education is enriched by the contributions of all. What kind of accommodation is reasonable cannot be prescriptively defined; the parameters of reasonableness would need to be evolved by each educational community.
Amita Dhanda is Professor at the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.
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