For Students, Not Being Disabled Is the New Disability

January 20, 2020 Updated: January 28, 2020


Last year, Israel’s Ministry of Education released data that reveals how school accommodation for students with mental disabilities has become a farce. According to a July report in Arutz Sheva Israel National News, the ministry’s figures indicate that in one Israeli community, 83 percent of grade 12 students received extra time on their exams along with other accommodations, while in other places significantly more than half the class did so. In these schools, a non-disabled minority were required to perform under more demanding conditions than everyone else.

Not being disabled has become the new disability.

These statistics bring to mind Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian short story “Harrison Bergeron,” written almost 60 years ago, which describes a future in which everyone is required to be equal. Gifted athletes are made to carry sacks of lead balls to hinder their movements, while the intelligent wear radio transmitters in their ears through which the government sends distracting noises to prevent them from thinking too clearly. The better the brain or more graceful the body, the more severe the burden assigned by the Handicapper General.

In Canada, no one has yet been made to carry lead balls or wear transmitters, but the drive to disadvantage the able, especially in education, has become pathological in this country. Schools and universities routinely grant extra time on exams, along with an assortment of other supports, to growing numbers of students who claim to have mental or cognitive disabilities such as attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, learning disability, depression, anxiety, or general befuddlement.

That might be OK if universities noted the accommodations on their transcripts in order to be more transparent and honest, like acknowledging you won the darts tournament because you were closer to the dartboard. Yet the prospect of disclosure is typically met with vehement objection. Telling the world about extra time granted to write exams, the argument goes, would defeat the purpose of accommodation and violate students’ privacy.

That says everything you need to know about the real purpose of extra exam time. It is not to enable participation, as accommodations should do, since students with mental health disabilities are already able to participate during the standard exam time like everybody else. Instead, like lead balls and transmitters in Vonnegut’s dystopia, extra time tilts the field in favour of those who are less able—or who claim that they are. According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, university students who claim accommodation for mental health disability should not have to disclose their medical diagnosis or even identify the condition they claim to have.

Disability accommodations were not conceived to provide advantage in competition. In 2005, a wheelchair racquetball player in Massachusetts claimed the right to be allowed to compete in an able-bodied racquetball league with an accommodation of the rules to allow him two bounces of the ball between shots (the rule in wheelchair racquetball) instead of the standard one. The Massachusetts Supreme Court dismissed his claim, concluding that changing the number of bounces would be “inconsistent with the fundamental character of the game.” People with disabilities should not be allowed to change the rules to give themselves a better shot.

An exam is no less a competition than a darts game or a racquetball tournament. Grades are signals about academic performance relative to peers. No professor awards an A for bad exam results and a B for the best ones. University transcripts communicate achievement to prospective employers as well as graduate and professional schools. The competition for marks is acute and one of the rules is the time allotted to write exams. If that rule changes for some, the competition is no longer valid.

An accommodation is legitimate when any competitor could take it up without skewing the contest. A deaf sprinter can’t hear the start gun but can see a light that flashes to start the 100-metre sprint. That’s legitimate because any of the other runners on the start line are free to watch the light too. When a blind student is permitted to access his exam with a screen reader, there is no advantage to be had. Any student could be permitted to do the same if they really want to—but they won’t precisely because it provides no advantage. Extra time on exams fails this test. If everyone can’t have it then no one should.

Fairness requires that all compete under the same conditions. Advocates for those with mental disabilities disagree. To them, even-handed competition is profoundly unfair because everyone is not mentally equal. Only when the scales are adjusted against the able and in favour of the disabled can things be said to be fair. These advocates would make excellent Handicappers General.

Bruce Pardy is a professor of law at Queen’s University. Email; Twitter @PardyBruce

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.