This and that…

November 19, 2007

More about documentation…A fable

Filed under: Post-secondary,Support Services,Vermont Tech — learningspecialist @ 3:27 pm

Documentation is one of those things that people get pretty passionate about and seem to really want to regulate. I think it is because we become so concerned about being “fair”, and we tend to define fair as treating everyone in the same way. The reality is that no one has the same experience with life- and so perhaps “fair” should really mean just access to getting your needs met. That way, it works for the person requesting accommodations along with the people charged with providing them and the person who, in a given situation, does not need them…”Fair” would mean that all the vested parties have their needs met. Hmmm…

One of my favorite contributors to the Disabled Students in Higher Education list, Jim Marks from the University of Montana, articulated this dilemna in a wonderful fable that I share with his permission. It is good fodder for thought at this time of year when we putting some energy into gratitude- side by side with the stress generated by the impending close to another semester. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

With apologies to the Brothers Grimm, but it is Friday…

Once upon a time, there was a man who said fairness means everyone must be treated the same. The man stood before the steps to the temple of higher education, and he declared that all must walk up the steps or not at all. He ignored those who could not walk up the steps because the man knew not what to do with them. Those who could not walk the steps did not fit the model, and the man honored consistency more than all other values, even the values of inclusion and preventing discrimination. Over time, the man and many others came to believe that the rule that all must be treated the same was good, and that those who could not walk the steps were to blame for their own exclusion. So common did this belief become that the excluded internalized the myth, and they too believed it with vigor. Shame was heaped on those who could not walk up the steps.

Then a great change came across the land. People started thinking that there may be a different way, that perhaps treating everyone the same might be unfair. They expanded their vision of the world, they created new technologies and methods, and they realized that elevators were as good as steps. They allowed people to take either the elevator or the steps, and those formerly excluded found themselves on the way to the temple, right alongside their peers. The man and the people celebrated special treatment and condemned equal treatment, and anew understanding of what fair means was hailed across the land.

The expanded version of what is fair failed to carry to all, though.

Among the people rose a new industry, and industry constructed around irony and coordinating the special treatment that permitted many access to the temple of higher education. Some from the industry began to cry that fairness required all students to be treated the same. Ask for documentation for one, they would shout, and then documentation must be asked of all. A great wailing and beating of breasts accompanied this new cry. “We are hypocrites,” it was said, “to treat people differently.” They began to ignore those for whom documentation was redundant. And they rigidly treated everyone the same, just as when there were only steps to the temple.

“How could this be,” said a few voices that learned well the lessons of what it means to be fair. “How can we insist on allowing the people to choose elevators or steps only to inflict equal treatment on the people we serve? Surely fairness means respecting individuality and the right to modify programs on a case-by-case basis. Surely we may use our heads and defend our actions based on common sense. Justice is served when we ask for documentation from some, but not from others, and truth lies in the particulars of each decision”

The end of this fable is not yet written, for it is not known whether fairness will be determined by equal or special treatment. With any luck, the people will be flexible and creative, and they will amend industry practices to render the best effect. After all, it is all about making it possible for people to top the temple of higher education free of discrimination based solely on disability.

Jim Marks

Director of Disability Services

University of Montana


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