Case Study: Exam Accommodations and Anna’s Chronic Illness

Background

Anna is pursuing a PhD in Algorithms, Combinatorics, and Optimization at a large research institution. She has a nervous system disorder which causes chronic pain and sensory processing difficulties. Her disability is mostly invisible, although at times she uses a cane or other mobility aid. She has a limited ability to write. Her health is managed medically to the best degree possible, but pain and fatigue persist. Anna’s accommodations include double time to complete exams and untimed breaks. She was in regular communication with her program about her needs and her accommodations.

Access Issue

In the second year of her program, Anna will take her comprehensive exam. This is a crucial exam that all students must pass in order to continue in the program. The exam is handwritten and scheduled over two days, four hours on the first day and three hours on the second. Doubling that time will be beyond Anna’s endurance and she will be unable to write for that long. Because of the long hours and stress involved, she also expects the exam to cause a flare up of her symptoms that will impact her ability to resume classes afterwards.

Solution

Anna brainstormed potential solutions with many people including professors, advisors from her undergraduate program, trusted peers, and disability services. She sent a proposal to her graduate program director based on these conversations. Because Anna had consistently advocated for herself, her department was not surprised by the request and was open to working together to find accommodations that would allow Anna to be successful. Through negotiation, they reached a set of mutually agreeable accommodations:

  • The exam was given over four days with a one-day break in the middle in order to allow Anna to take double time at breaks without reaching the point of exhaustion. Anna took the exam over one week, testing on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.
  • Anna was excused from classes and other responsibilities for the week.
  • Anna’s classroom instructors agreed to be flexible about exams and due dates that semester to help mitigate flare-ups that might occur.
  • Anna took the exam in her office so that she could access assistive technology and ergonomic furniture she uses. To mitigate handwriting the exam, Anna used speech to text software combined with some custom software to turn dictated text into typeset mathematics.
  • She was given untimed breaks as needed. During these breaks, she could walk around the building (but not talk to anyone), go to the restroom, eat, listen to music, read material unrelated to the exam, or lie down.
  • Anna maintained a log of her work time on the exam and breaks, and turned this log in with her solutions. This allowed her to demonstrate that she did not use more time than allowed.
  • She agreed not to communicate with classmates until she had finished the entire exam. She signed the same honor code statement as other students in the program, certifying that her work was her own.
  • The professor administering the exam provided Anna with a phone number to reach him with any questions.

With these accommodations, Anna was able to complete her exams successfully while managing her health to the best degree possible.

Conclusion

This case study illustrates:

  1. Graduate degree requirements such as comprehensive or general exams may necessitate revisiting students’ accommodations. Accommodations that might typically work may not be sufficient in these unique situations. Compromise may be necessary.
  2. Students with disabilities should be active participants in negotiating their own accommodations. Students bring to the table an understanding of both their own disability and the academic environment.