Lately, I’ve found myself talking about one of the lessons I learned while I worked in the area of Disability Services. I thought it might be worth sharing with you today. Once upon a time, someone told me that the questions we ask define the answers we get. Seems kind of backward, doesn’t it? I think I may have had a little internal recognition that, backward or not, there was something right about it. But it wasn’t until I worked in Disability Services that I really understood it.
I worked in Disability Services at UT-Austin when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) came into effect. While previous laws had moved universities to make many, though not all, physical accommodations, with the ADA disability access really moved into the classroom. As a result, we began asking more and more professors to make a wider variety of changes in areas that, until then, had been sacrosanct. The most difficult area was testing, and that’s where I learned the importance of the questions we ask.
For most faculty members, the primary issue is fairness. The fairness question goes something like this: ‘How do we find a way to test the student with the disability that is most like every other student?’ Seems reasonable, right? Of course we want to be fair. But, to whom? The tricky thing with disability accommodations is that situations that are equally applied can be unfair to the person with an accommodation. There is nothing unfair about stairs at every entrance – unless you’re in a wheelchair.
This takes us to the idea of questions and answers. Think about these two questions:
• How do I keep this test as close as possible to the regular test?
• What is the best way to assess the learning of this student with a disability?
It’s clear immediately, isn’t it, that you will get two different sets of possible answers. In a perfect world we would ask the second question for every student. We all have preferred ways of taking tests. Unfortunately, sheer numbers make that too difficult. For students with disabilities, this is not about preference; this is about differing abilities and the law requires that we figure out a way to test a student in a manner that is not inherently discriminatory.
Try it in your work. For example, in Financial Aid lately we might ask, ‘what is the simplest, clearest way to distribute the limited resources we have available?’ Or we might ask, ‘what is the way to get the most money to the most students?’ Those two questions lead to different sets of answers. Both are legitimate questions. Asking both of them, and others as well, helps us do a better job of making sure we are examining as many options as we can think of.
What questions are we forgetting to ask? Are the questions we are asking limiting our thinking or expanding it? If the answers we have to work with are defined by our questions, then we need to work toward asking the best questions we can. Keep up the good questions, everyone!
(reprint from July 2011, Issue 14)