Why are academic accommodations positioned as “situationally sanctioned cheating?”

Empty desks for taking exams

If you review a typical college-level syllabus, you will often find one or more standardized statements that describe institutional policies on certain issues. More recently, these “syllabus statements” have evolved to include helpful or supportive information for students such as “basic needs” statements or campus mental health resources. However, in my experience the two most common standard syllabus statements are the “academic integrity statement” and the“disability accommodations statement.” Below are examples of such statements from Penn State University.

In an examination setting, unless the instructor gives explicit prior instructions to the contrary, violations of academic integrity shall consist of any attempt to receive assistance from written or printed aids, from any person or papers or electronic devices, or of any attempt to give assistance, whether the student doing so has completed his or her own work or not. Other violations include, but are not limited to, any attempt to gain an unfair advantage in regard to an examination, such as tampering with a graded exam or claiming another’s work to be one’s own. Failure to comply will lead to sanctions against the student in accordance with the Policy on Academic Dishonesty in the Eberly College of Science.” -Suggested syllabus statement for a course with exams, Penn State Eberly College of Science

Penn State welcomes students with disabilities into the University’s educational programs. Every Penn State campus has an office for students with disabilities. The Student Disability Resources (SDR) website provides contact information for every Penn State campus…For further information, please visit Student Disability Resources: http://equity.psu.edu/sdr. In order to receive consideration for reasonable accommodations, you must contact the appropriate disability services office at the campus where you are officially enrolled, participate in an intake interview, and provide documentation. If the documentation supports your request for reasonable accommodations, your campus’s disability services office will provide you with an accommodation letter. Please share this letter with your instructors and discuss the accommodations with them as early in your courses as possible. You must follow this process for every semester that you request accommodations.” -Suggested disability statement, Penn State Office of Educational Equity

Whenever I see these two types of syllabus statements next to each other, I wonder what work is being done by their juxtaposition. In these examples, I can’t help but notice that the accommodations students may request or be granted through an official disability accommodations process are likely to resemble some of the infractions detailed in the academic integrity statement. Disabled students may receive “assistance” from “written or printed aids” in the form of large print or plain language materials or support from a “person” such as an interpreter or aid, or “electronic devices” such as a keyboard to assist with typing or a screen reading device or application. The key concern with all of these potential violations is that a student may “gain an unfair advantage,” a concern that seems to be addressed by the “disability accommodations statement.” 

While the university does “welcome” the participation of disabled students, in order to receive accommodations they must personally contact the correct office, participate in an interview and produce documentation, all just to be considered for services. Accommodations are only granted if the provided documentation “supports the request” and students must repeat this process with regularity to continue receiving accommodations. To the extent these steps create some sort of barrier to receiving accommodations, it is likely to ensure that those accommodations are actually needed by the student, rather than privileges that would offer the student an unfair advantage. However, once the disability is documented, that documentation does provide some official status and protection to the student. The relationship between these two syllabus statements is part of an overall dismissive attitude toward accommodations in higher education: While accommodations are a vital tool for providing every student access to education and a legal right of disabled students, some official language casts them as a fringe part of academic life, separate from and potentially in tension with the norms of “academic integrity.”

Fear of the disability con: creating an academic integrity “gray area”

The concern that some people may identify themselves as disabled in order to gain certain advantages is prevalent outside the context of higher education. In a social phenomenon that Doron Dorfman calls the “fear of the disability con”, whenever disabled people make use of an accommodation, use an adaptive device, or otherwise access the public sphere in ways that work for them, some onlookers become concerned that they are actually “faking” their disability. The “fear of the disability con” is especially pronounced in situations when the accommodation being used is restricted to only disabled people. Take for example a service dog that assists a disabled person. The “fear of the con” would be far less acute (or perhaps nonexistent) in a context in which anyone is free to bring a dog with them (such as a public outdoor park) and is more pronounced in a situation in which only service dogs are permitted (for example a business or a school). This is because the disabled person is perceived as having a special privilege compared to other people, and there is preemptive anger that they might be getting a privilege that they do not deserve. The fear of the disability con is especially pronounced in competitive academic contexts. While some accommodations that disabled students use would not necessarily be useful to all students (such as large print or braille course materials) some other accommodations would theoretically be useful to all students (such as additional time on exams and assignments or a dedicated note-taker).

I think that as a result of this phenomenon, a lot of rhetoric around academic integrity and cheating wrongly positions disability accommodations as a situationally “acceptable” or “sanctioned” form of cheating, or as a gray area between academic dishonesty and upright academic behavior. This approach at least superficially recognizes the rights of disabled students to receive accommodations, while assuring others that the threat of the “disability con” is being taken seriously by maintaining strict and exclusive definitions of academic integrity. Although there are likely many interesting examples of how this rhetorical link plays out, I have identified two notable ones that pertain specifically to exams, which are competitive and high-stakes by nature. One is this way that some college and university disability resource centers that provide exam accommodations go to great lengths to establish themselves as entities that uphold “academic integrity,” seemingly in response to a potential concern that students who use accommodations are getting an “unfair advantage.” Another is how remote proctoring companies and the institutions that use their products concede that some disabled students may be falsely flagged as cheaters by their products, demonstrating that disabled students and the accommodations they use would be considered cheating if not for the construct of formal accommodations. I detail these two case studies below.

Disability resource center references to academic integrity: “Not an incentive to violate the rules”

As I think more about the tension that emerges when academic integrity statements are juxtaposed with disability accommodations statements, it seems obvious that because of needed accommodations, students with disabilities might interact differently with standard concepts of academic integrity that prohibit outside aids or assistance. I have yet to find any university academic integrity policy that acknowledges this. On the other hand, it is relatively easy to find examples of student disability center webpages that are quick to assure the reader that the office takes normative academic integrity seriously (betraying a latent concern that disability accommodations constitute a departure from normal academic integrity norms). 

At Wayne State University’s office of Student Disability Services, a page entitled “exam accommodations” begins with the statement: “Student Disability Services is committed to maintaining the highest academic integrity standards when administering exams.” The impression the casual visitor to this site gets is that the primary concern of someone interested in the exam accommodations process for disabled students is not the provision of appropriate space, tools, and supports or necessary coordination between instructor, student, and disability office but the possibility that a student receiving exam accommodations will take advantage of the situation. Accordingly, the rest of the page contains a number of rules and policies related to the prevention of cheating or other academic integrity concerns. Several of these would be confusing for students who receive certain accommodations. One such rule states, “If you are late for your exam, you will not be allowed to make up the lost time.” How is a student who receives extra time on their exams as an accommodation meant to understand this rule? Is their need for this accommodation somehow invalidated if they are not on time for the exam? 

Students are additionally “not allowed the use of any unauthorized aids during an exam. Aids such as calculators must be approved by the professor and written on the test instruction sheet.” While a common policy, it is a strange one to include on a webpage for students who, because they are taking exams with the disability office, are much likelier than the average student to be using some sort of device or aid for their exam. Overall, the page seems to assume a hypothetical student who would attempt to gain an unfair advantage by using accommodations, setting an unwelcoming and unhelpful tone for students visiting the page. 

Similarly, Purdue University’s Disability Resource Center alerts students that they are considered at heightened risk for cheating with a web page entitled “Academic Honesty.”

“While the Disability Resource Center does provide access to accommodated testing, this should not act as an incentive for students to violate the rules of the classroom by providing themselves with extra notes, hints, or other resources which may affect the score of a test. We ask that you please not put yourself in jeopardy of violating the Purdue Honor Pledge when testing with us.”

This statement first suggests that the separate environment of the accommodated testing space would incentivize cheating. One might think that the more intimate nature of the disability office and higher likelihood of detection would actually disincentivize cheating. But, according to the framework of accommodations as situationally sanctioned cheating, students accessing the accommodated testing environment are viewed with increased suspicion because they are already taking advantage of privileges associated with their disability that would be considered cheating in other contexts. This might lead students to see an opening to take advantage of the accommodated testing environment to make use of “extra notes, hints, or other resources” that are not situationally sanctioned.  An alternate, more charitable reading of this statement is that the office is not necessarily more suspicious of students using accommodations, but wants to protect them from accidental academic integrity violations that may result from the blurred lines of accommodations. 

Similarly to the Wayne State page, Purdue’s web content introduces ambiguity about the propriety of accommodations. The “extra notes, hints, or other resources” that are referenced are vague enough to threaten, or at least confuse a disabled student reading this page in preparation for an upcoming exam. Accommodations regularly take the form of extra notes (such as plain language instructions, glossaries, etc), and the catch-all term “other resources” could theoretically include any accommodation whatsoever. This statement could easily have been rephrased “While the …Center does provide access to accommodated testing, this should not act as an incentive for students to violate the rules of the classroom by providing themselves with extra notes, hints, or other resources that are not part of the student’s accommodations…” By leaving out this qualifier, the student is forced to wonder whether their allowed accommodations are worth the risk of putting themselves “in jeopardy of violating the Purdue Honor Pledge.” The responsibility to avoid the semblance of, and presumably the eventual blame for any academic integrity issues is placed on the student, a theme that we will see again in the way that remote proctoring companies talk about disabled students. 

Remote proctoring modifications for students with disabilities: “Settings may conflict with accommodations”

Remote proctoring is a process by which students are monitored by a human or AI software while they complete an exam or other assignment, to prevent them from cheating. Many of these products track student behavior through a webcam, microphone, or by monitoring their mouse and keyboard activity, and have been and can be biased against students of color and disabled students. The false promise of remote proctoring is that there are cheaters out there, and these products can identify them. In reality, there are many ways to circumvent these products if students still wish to cheat, and they may in fact wrongly flag some students as cheaters as we will see1.

Because disabled students are present on all higher education campuses, remote proctoring companies and the institutions that contract with them have had to communicate about how they believe their products should and should not be used by students with disabilities. Highlighting the accessibility of their products, remote proctoring companies are quick to note that accommodations can easily be provided within the testing software (e.g. extra time or high contrast display). Most commonly, these are adjustments to the format of the assessment itself, like additional time or breaks (see Examity’s page on accessibility for examples).

However, on similar help pages, there are references to accommodations which may need to be provided in the form of modifications to the proctoring platform. For example, a common feature of remote proctoring software is browser lockdown, or a set of restrictions that is placed on the exam taker to prevent them from using unauthorized resources or otherwise cheating on the assessment. Browser lockdown functions can include preventing the user from using multiple tabs or multiple windows, preventing the user from visiting other website, preventing other applications from running simultaneously with the exam or proctoring software, preventing the use of additional screens or devices, and limiting user control over the visual quality of the exam, such as font size, color contrast, or brightness. Because these lockdown features interfere with certain adaptive devices or accessibility tools, remote proctoring companies or the schools that use them sometimes recommend disabling these features for students who use such tools.

Schools that use remote proctoring tools sometimes explicitly alert instructors that there may be false positive behavioral flags when students with disabilities use their products. For example, The University of Wisconsin – Madison’s knowledge base article for faculty about Honorlock, a remote proctoring platform, states:

“Honorlock provides standard exam settings that you can enable for all students.  While most of these are intended to make exams more secure, they may also conflict with student accommodations. When starting an exam, Honorlock presents the instructions that you provide.  The tool itself does not explicitly state behaviors, resources, etc. that are prohibited.  However, the auto proctoring artificial intelligence (AI) may flag certain behaviors for review.  For  example, if the student leaves their seat to stretch, take a break, use a medical device, or use the restroom, you may receive a notification that indicates “Face not clearly visible.””

Here too, we see a tension between “academic integrity” and “disability accommodations”: if the settings in question are designed to promote academic integrity, but they must be turned off for disabled students to use the product, disabled students are put in a gray area with respect to normative academic integrity.

Proctoring companies are even sometimes explicit that disabled students will need accommodations to use their product, even in situations when they might not ordinarily disclose a disability. In a blog post entitled “Myths About Remote Proctoring: Accessibility,” the company SmarterServices discusses how a student with a tic disorder (e.g. Tourette’s) would interact with the proctoring system:

“This condition (Chronic Tic Disorder) is an example of a disorder for which a student may not formally request an accommodation through the disability services office of their institution. However, if the student will be utilizing virtual proctoring, they should be encouraged to request an accommodation.  When the student has formally requested an accommodation then that notice will be viewable to proctors and faculty.”

This statement is ambiguous and avoids stating outright that disabled students can experience false positive cheating flags. Students are obviously not required to disclose a disability to their instructor unless they are requesting accommodations. Disability services offices at colleges are not registries of disabled students, but rather are organizations charged with ensuring that disabled students receive the accommodations that they need. In fact, some college disability services web pages will specifically mention that one of the rights of disabled students is to not self-identify (as disabled) if they are not requesting accommodations. SmarterServices recognizes this right and reality (“this condition is an example of a disorder for which a student may not formally request an accommodation through the disability services office”) yet suggests that the student must be encouraged to self-identity if they are using remote proctoring. The way this company would have it, private information such as disability status must be available to instructors at all times in order not to compromise the “cheating detection” functionality of the product. Thus, in this case, documentation and accommodations cease to be a method of providing disabled students access to learning, and become simply a shield against accusations of cheating.2  Not only are accommodations considered “situationally sanctioned cheating” here, but some disabled students would be forced to disclose a disability in violation of their rights to avoid suspicion of academic dishonesty.

A different path: Accommodations as a part of, not a challenge to academic integrity

Returning to the tension between the common academic integrity and disability accommodations syllabus statements, I want to propose we integrate accommodations as a normative component of academic integrity. The current model in which accommodations are positioned as situationally sanctioned cheating harms and further marginalizes disabled students as well as the learning environment as a whole by implying that common necessary adjustments to academic activities would constitute breaches to academic integrity were it not for their situational sanctioned nature. While it would take some time to draft a whole new policy or statement, policies could include that “students should be provided appropriate supports to complete assignments to the best of their ability, including appropriate disability accommodations and accommodations for other life circumstances that may affect students’ ability to complete assignments.” Thus, while the policy might still state that “no student should receive any unfair advantages,” accommodations would be less likely to be viewed as such.

Certainly, an important component of such an approach would be to lower the barriers to receiving accommodations. While the need for documentation in order to receive an accommodation seems like it must have a strong legal basis based on its prevalence, the truth is more complicated. Kat Macfarlane argues persuasively in her article “Disability Without Documentation” that the ADA might not strictly require medical documentation of disability for the purposes of accommodations, and that documentation requirements place an unfair and unnecessary burden on disabled people. Additionally, the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) suggests that two important forms of evidence for a student’s disability are 1) the student’s self-report of how they may be limited by their disability in an academic context and 2) “the impressions and conclusions formed by higher education disability professionals during interviews and conversations with students” as a means of validating a student’s self-report. Documentation from a medical provider is considered a tertiary form of evidence according to AHEAD. These alternative approaches to disability documentation could radically expand access in the educational environment, especially because the barriers to traditional medical disability documentation are higher for multiply marginalized students such as disabled students of color and queer disabled students.

Disability services offices do and will continue to do critical work advocating for the rights of disabled students and ensuring that the learning environment is accessible. I suggest that we take the pressure off these important offices by trusting students more and asserting that accommodations do not conflict with academic integrity. These offices should be free to do their job of supporting disabled students without having to constantly signal their worthiness. 

1 Shea Swauger’s piece “Our Bodies Encoded: Algorithmic Test Proctoring in Higher Education” makes a persuasive case that algorithmic proctoring is by definition ableist. My colleague Autumm Caines and I summarize the numerous harms of remote proctoring in our recent paper in the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. 
2 While remote proctoring providers and schools that use them acknowledge the narrow category of “registered” disabled students for whom the proctoring products may not work as intended, there is not necessarily anything specific about disabled students as a group that would cause this “malfunction.” Ultimately, when remote proctoring companies or the institutions that contract with them admit, whether implicitly or explicitly, that their products do not work as intended or need to be modified for use by disabled students they expose that they have limited utility in general. That is to say, an instructor using a remote proctoring technology would not take behavioral flags very seriously were they fully acknowledging the full diversity of human bodies, behaviors, cultures, family situations, and modes of communication.

Photo by Akshay Chauhan on Unsplash

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