Mandatory attendance policies are ableist

WSU lacks a definitive attendance policy, causing accessibility to vary between departments, instructors

KRISTIN BULZOMI, Evergreen columnist

Every semester I anxiously wait for the first day of classes to receive the syllabus. It is not necessarily because I am excited to start a new semester or class.

No, the main reason I am so anxious to find out the expectations of all my new courses is because I have a disability and I need to know how strict the attendance policies are.

WSU has no formal campus-wide attendance policy and it varies between departments, classes and instructors. The official catalog simply states that any attendance policy is the responsibility of the instructor. The only excused absences instructors must allow are for military service or accommodations from the Access Center.

The Access Center is the resource office on campus that grants students accommodations based on disabilities or medical conditions.

“We work with students who have limitations to the environment that impact them … by reducing barriers that they experience in the environment, whatever environment that is,” said Meredyth Goodwin, the director of the Access Center.

Since I happen to be in a department that believes mandatory attendance is the best policy, I often find myself exasperated, stressed and changing my schedule with professors who are a bit more relaxed or sympathetic.

As a student with a disability, I could go to the Access Center and ask for accommodations for these strict attendance policies. However, as a non-traditional post-baccalaureate student who prides herself on being an independent adult and fiercely guarded about her privacy, I have not reached out.

According to Goodwin, to receive accommodations from the Access Center, students need to apply on their website and they “also ask that they support or provide supporting documentation of their medical condition or disability.”

However, Goodwin said the center doesn’t want to be seen as another barrier and will work with students without documentation.  These students are given what Goodwin describes as a “grace period” of a semester or two while they obtain proper documentation.

The documentation required can vary depending on the disability.

“A description of how the student is impacted and how their disability or medical condition impacts their functioning … it needs to be from a licensed medical professional whether it’s a therapist or a doctor,” Goodwin said.

That sounds so easy, right? Around 1,300 students every year get accommodations from the Access Center, according to Goodwin. But how many students around the WSU campus are like me and fail to register? How many students register and cannot access the flexible attendance accommodations they need because departments and instructors set mandatory attendance policies?

I spoke with May Dearing, vice president of the Disabled Students and Allies Club, and she agreed attendance policies are ableist. She spoke about her own issues accessing classes in the winter because of illness and snow.

“During the cold season,” Dearing said, “when there is feet of snow on the ground and no one cancels classes, I use the [Cougar Accessible Transportation] van to get to all my classes, but sometimes there’s issues with the van getting through the snow.”

Dearing also spoke about limitations of flexible attendance.

“There’s only so much leeway that [the Access Center] can give you,” Dearing said.

Goodwin echoed this sentiment stating limitations based on what professors will allow relating to the structure of the class.

Additionally, flexible attendance accommodations are not a given.  Dearing mentioned difficulties for certain students obtaining the attendance accommodations they needed because of their particular disability.  Those students have to make the impossible choice of going when they should not or failing, if they even have the ability to go at all.

Dearing stressed the need to not treat all students and disabilities the same.

She emphasized the importance to find a middle ground in order to accommodate every student.

I think Dearing’s last point is crucial — a middle ground. Attendance policies do not just affect individuals like me with a disability who have to figure out whether they will tough it out or try for accommodations.

Mandatory attendance policies affect students who have full-time jobs, kids at home and other obligations and students who simply get ill during the semester. Goodwin discussed how more conversation and lenience is needed around these issues.

In my discussion with Goodwin, she spoke about a more universally-designed classroom — one where students did not necessarily have to ask for accommodations because the barriers some students with disabilities face are no longer present.

We should design our university to better suit the needs of all students on campus. We should not leave behind students because of mandatory attendance policies.