Mental disabilities shouldn’t be accommodated with extra time on exams

Posted on August 18, 2017 in Equality Debates – Full Comment – A professor who awards an A to the best exam and a B to the middle of the pack discriminates between exams. She also discriminates between students on the basis of their cognitive skills and mental abilities
August 17, 2017.   Bruce Pardy

Last week at the World Track and Field Championships, Usain Bolt ran his final race. Andre De Grasse, the Canadian sprint star, missed his last chance to beat Bolt because of a hamstring tear. If, instead of pulling out of the race, De Grasse had claimed accommodation for his injury and demanded a 20-metre head start, no one would have taken the request seriously.

Yet an equivalent accommodation is standard practice at Canadian universities and colleges. They award extra time on exams and assignments to students who claim mental and cognitive impairments. Extra time for mental disabilities is as unfair to other students as a head start would be to other runners. Human rights legislation does not prescribe such measures. The practice is illegitimate and inconsistent with the law.

The number of Canadian university and college students claiming mental disabilities has increased dramatically in the past decade. Depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, learning disabilities, and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders are common conditions. Some are permanent and others temporary; some are constant and others recurring. Typically, only a medical note is required to get accommodation, even though many clinicians rely on self-reported symptoms to measure impairment. At some universities, students not need even disclose the nature of the condition they claim to suffer. A typical accommodation is an additional 50 per cent of the time allotted (an extra hour for a two-hour exam).

Extra time for mental disabilities is as unfair to other students as a head start would be to runners

Provincial human rights commissions insist that these extra-time accommodations are necessary. These commissions are not neutral investigative bodies but advocacy agencies with expansive agendas and wide powers to interpret and apply human rights code provisions. On this subject, their directions are inconsistent with prevailing principles of human rights law.

Their confusion is in part a product of the tangled concept of discrimination. To “discriminate” means to distinguish or tell apart. While the law prohibits certain specific instances of discrimination, telling people apart is not illegal but an essential tool for functioning in the world. People discriminate constantly. They choose to be friends with some people and not others. Employers hire better qualified candidates rather than those less qualified. Distinguishing between people even on prohibited grounds is proper if done for a bona fide purpose.

The bona fides of any competition are the skills and abilities that the competition tests. The purpose of the race is to discriminate between people based upon their speed. Therefore, it also discriminates against people with disabilities that affect speed, but not in a way that offends the law. No accommodation need be made.

Discrimination is one of the purposes of the exam

Exams are competitions too. A student’s grade depends largely upon how his performance compares to his classmates. When a professor awards an A to the best exam and a B to the middle of the pack, she discriminates between exams. Therefore, she also discriminates between students on the basis of their cognitive skills and mental abilities: how well they can think, learn, analyze, remember, communicate, plan, prepare, organize, focus and perform under pressure. Discrimination is one of the purposes of the exam. That discrimination is not illegal or inappropriate. No accommodation need be made.

Other kinds of disabilities can be accommodated because they are not what the exam is testing. Blind students, for example, may need to access exam questions with a text reader. Unlike extra time for mental disabilities, such accommodations create no undue hardships for other students in the class.

Alicia Raimundo is a mental health advocate and a former student at the University of Waterloo diagnosed with dyslexia, depression, anxiety and Asperger’s syndrome. Her attitude is typical. Students with mental disabilities, she told Maclean’s Magazine last year, “might have the smarts to achieve (grades in the) 90s but will only receive 60s. (Accommodations are) about levelling the playing field.”

Extra time does not level the field but tilts it

This claim is false. Extra time does not level the field but tilts it. Given enough time, many students could put together a paper that would earn a 90 — had it been produced within the two hours allotted for the exam. Claiming the right to extra time and then insisting that what you produce is an A paper is like claiming that you should win the gold medal for the 100 metres by running only 80 metres. That logic cheats those who have accomplished more demanding tasks. There is only one gold medal and only a limited number of A grades. Pressure is part of the conditions of the test. Students who can exhibit proficiency only when sources of stress are eliminated are like athletes who can perform at their best only in practice rather than in the big game. Accommodating those students makes no more sense than accommodating the athletes.

The proper purpose of accommodation is to facilitate participation, not to compensate for lack of ability that the test is about. Students who claim extra time for mental disabilities are already able to participate within the normally allotted period. They simply wish to increase their prospects for success at the expense of their peers.

National Post

Bruce Pardy is Professor of Law at Queen’s University. This column is based upon an article published in the Education and Law Journal.

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3 Responses to “Mental disabilities shouldn’t be accommodated with extra time on exams”

  1. David says:

    Exams are to evaluate understanding of course content. If you do no understand the content extra time will not give you an advantage. Bruce has totally missed this. He says it is ok for the the blind to use a reader, what he fails to understand that using a reader for either the blind or a dyslexic results in needing more time to read the question. Bruce sounds like a Tool.

  2. Ally says:

    The differences in variables and outcomes make comparing a race to an exam irrelevant. Claiming that extra time allotted on exams for students with disabilities is unlawful, is false. The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) enforces the Ontario Human Rights code, which is a provincial law that gives everyone equal rights and opportunities with disability as one of the seventeen protected grounds (OHRC, 2017). Contextually, discrimination is not to discern difference, additionally accommodation is to facilitate participation by, making special arrangements for individuals ensuring equal opportunity (OHRC, 2017). The duty to accommodate is law under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights and OHRC under equality, social inclusion and education. Discrimination is not the purpose of an exam, exams are about determining competency. Students cannot ‘claim’ a disability, detailed medical documentation must be presented to the Accessibility Office, who follow the appropriate measures to ensure the student has equal opportunities. Organizations can deny accommodations if “undue harm” is caused to others. Therefore, the consensus must remain, that allotting extra time for exams does not create undue hardships or ‘tilt the playing field’.

  3. Emily says:

    This is perhaps one of the most ignorant articles I have ever read. I assume you do not suffer from a mental disability, but instead feel threatened by those who do. Shame on you, Bruce Pardy.


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