Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Goldfish Guide to Being Reasonable

“Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.” – George Bernard Shaw.

Sly Civilian is having a bit of a crisis with the effects of his mental health impairment on his studies. He asks
“…what does the reasonable in reasonable accommodation mean? Is reason a term that offers any real protection at all? I think, for me at least, the whole problem is unreason. My panic and depression don’t follow very many rules at all, coming and going as they please.”
Rather than discussing the massive question of what reasonable accommodation (or reasonable adjustment as it is phrased in UK legislation) should mean to colleges, businesses and other organisations, I thought I would discuss what it means to be reasonable to ourselves – which I sense is a big part of Sly’s particular challenge just now. Much of this applies to academic studies, but the principles may be applied elsewhere.

The Goldfish Guide to Being Reasonable (to oneself)

The first rule of achieving anything whilst living with a changeable, unpredictable impairment is to set aside those questions which don’t have an answer. For one thing, I have long ago come to the conclusion that any significant analysis into whether or not any accommodation or a request for help is entirely fair and entirely reasonable can be very unhelpful indeed.

Fairness is immeasurable in this context; if a person has a disadvantage and something is put in place to compensate, there is always the possibility that this compensation falls slightly short, or else moves slightly beyond what was necessary. And reasonableness is as subjective a concept there is.

If you need help, ask. If you are offered help and it appears to be appropriate, accept it.

Last time I was taking exams, I knew it would be impossible for me to leave home to do them or to write out my answers by hand. I had no reservations asking for the appropriate adjustments on that score. However, what about breaks and extra time? I had to state exactly how many minutes of each I would need. And I also knew that unless my request appeared suspicious, nobody was going to question what I asked for. In the end I decided against any extra time on the grounds that the very concept seemed like widening the goalposts.

Now, I think that was a mistake. There is no way that, even spread out around breaks, I could have a two hour period with the sustained capacity for concentration and cognition as a healthy person. But it is incredibly sticky. The question that keeps coming to mind is, well what if I am simply not as capable as the other candidates sitting the exams? Perhaps I am making excuses, exploiting my impairment, taking advantage?

Therein lies madness. I tend to think that people who have any doubt about what they are entitled to are generally safe from taking advantage. There are some disabled people who expect special rather than equivalent treatment. The moral dilemma - and it is a dilemma - will simply not have occurred to them.

Secondly, it is unhelpful to question one’s own gauge of capacity at any given time. We are human. Everybody makes excuses to themselves when they lack motivation or stamina, and having impairments which really do sometimes stop us working doesn’t mean we are always completely honest with ourselves. However, faced with limitations, one has to acquire a more acute gauge of what one is capable of, and when, in order to achieve anything at all. The more ambitious the person, the more likely they are to in fact have an inflated perception of their capacities, and be forever berating themselves for not doing as much as they imagine they might.

One has, therefore, little option but to trust oneself. One may not be a perfect judge, but there’s nobody who is better-placed for this role.

So how to impose order on the most disorderly, changeable impairments…

The easiest way I found to deal with my changing capacities was to write down a number next to the date on the calendar or in a diary. This is a number out of ten which measures your functional capacity on any given day. 0 is a day when you lay in bed staring at the ceiling. 5 is a day when you were able to do some things and 10 is as good a day as you ever get. Once again, this is never going to be a perfect science, so you just have to go with how you think you’re doing, write a number down and think no more about it.

This way you have a picture of how things are going generally; doesn’t matter if you scored an 8 on Thursday, if the rest of the week was all twos and threes, you know it’s not going so well. As soon as you identify a trend that you think may effect your work, you act upon it. For example, you warn your tutor that you’re not doing too well and should things continue as they are, it’s possible that you will need an extension on that assignment due in two weeks from now.

It is very important to warn people you are answerable to at the earliest opportunity – even if things could change for the better and you might have no trouble meeting the deadline. It is far better to risk being seen to have been unnecessarily concerned that to phone up the tutor the day before the deadline explaining that you’ve been unwell for the last three weeks. It is far better to be honest in anticipation - at least as much anticipation as one can have in these circumstances. That way on occasions when you do have some last-minute health crisis, you will be trusted and perhaps more importantly, you won’t have to worry about being believed.

If you need to work with smaller time frames, you can have a different score for AM and PM, or even divide your day into three or four hour periods. Just to apply some objective measure to a highly subjective and chaotic situation. It is not perfect, but imperfection comes with the territory.

Unfortunately, this is more complicated when the upcoming deadline is an exam. There is sometimes the option to sit the exam - if you can physically sit it - and then retake it if you did very badly. There is sometimes the option to retake it a few days, a week or a month later than everyone else. However, sometimes the only options are to sit the exam now and get whatever grade you're going to get or else retake the entire course - which might be a semester or a whole year.

It all depends on the individual and the particular circumstance - if you only have to pass an exam, and that grade doesn't have to count towards anything in the future, then you might as well sit it anyway and hope you scrape through. This is counter-intuitive if you are a straight A student, but there are only a few exam grades which you will ever be asked about once you are outside of education.

However, for some people, the sheer weight of the looming exam combined with a crisis in health is going to cause them so much trouble that it is worth whatever it takes just to postpone the exam and relieve the pressure.

Which brings me round to The Golden Rule of Being Reasonable:

There are always more important things in life.

There are very few academic qualifications or other achievements which are worth making oneself desperately unhappy over. There are certainly few exams or modules or assigments that are worth your tears. I shall resist making any comment about the specific value of Biblical Greek in the greater scheme of things...

However, it is fairly useless just to say that. The point is that if you face a challenge knowing that - knowing that there is no divine compulsion or obligation - then I believe you are far more likely to apply creativity to the way you go about things, look after yourself while you're doing it, and to do it to the very best of your ability.

Right, now I have got all that, 5th November and Incapacity Benefit out of my system, I shall now take my throat mixture and climb atop the wardrobe...


Mary said...

off you go, see you later, have fun.

This is all far too intellectual for me on a Saturday morning, ahem, I mean lunchtime.

ben said...

first. thank you for this. it's easy for me to get really caught up in some of this, and some disentanglement is very necessary.

i do think i'm going to come back around to this, tho. "Fairness is immeasurable in this context; if a person has a disadvantage and something is put in place to compensate, there is always the possibility that this compensation falls slightly short, or else moves slightly beyond what was necessary. And reasonableness is as subjective a concept there is."

My worry here is exactly that, that reasonable accomodation emphasizes external action to make us "able." And i wonder about what it means to have my academic overlords guessing at what they have to do so that I can perform like a normal student. My frustration here is at the conflation between reasonable, the authority of bureocratic structures, and the assumption that the goal is normative ablism.

Or maybe i'm over-reading again. I'm putting a lot of this stuff on the backburner until i can be a touch more reflective about it, and not quite so reactive.

thank you...

spotted elephant said...

Thanks for this post.

Anonymous said...

I love this post so much, I'm bookmarking it. Really, really, thank you.

BloggingMone said...

Great post! Being a taecher at university, I feel I should add something from "the other side of the fence". There are rules, stating that no student can be forced to sit in an exam if he/she isn't feeling well. We even have to ask, if everyone is OK, before the exams or tests start. Never hesitate to clearly say if you are unwell. It is your right to do so and no one will even raise an eyebrow.
Apart from that I want the students to show what they have learned and to to perform to the best of their abilities. It is not my task to check on how much stress they can cope with or how good they will perform under pain and a lack of concentration. During my exams I do not check on how long a certain student's break is or how often a student visits the toilet or that kind of thing. If the students have to write a bigger piece of homework or a theses paper, I never give any deadlines, because I strongly believe in the individuality of working speed. No student has ever taken advantage of this more than necessary.
It is people first, not rules. I can only encourage everyone to ask for whatever it is that will help you to perform well in your exams. No matter if that is postponing it, having more time, longer breaks, a room of your own, etc. If there is a medical reason for it and a doctor to testify - fine. If not, it is the teacher's common sense to decide. For me it is normal to postpone an exam, because the beloved cat or dog of a student died the night before. Do not agree to do the exams despite of feeling able to do it and do not believe in any rules and regulations the teacher feels he/she cannot do anything about. Especially at universities, colleges, etc. the teacher is the one and only person responsible for what is happening in his/her seminars and lessons, including the exams.
If nothing else helps - change class, get yourself another teacher. After all students are grown up people, we are not talking about primary school.

CoalWood said...

The "George Bernard Shaw" quoted above is so correct it is scary. I use to be the guy in a wheelchair that all ab's hated because I would not let them get by with crap. During the past few years I have mellowed to the point that I am a turtle. The quote states what is correct, the unreasonable are the ones to lead progress.

Mary said...

Bloggingmone - seriously? In the UK?

Certain people in my experience are keeping that one quiet, then.

BloggingMone said...

Mary, sorry, I can only speak for Universities and other places of higher education in Germany.
But I was told that "common sense" is a British invention. Until recently the German language did not even have a proper word for it.
But to be honest, it isn't everything golden that glitters. I know that sometimes students have to fight very hard to get what they need, especially in very big departments, where students remain very much anonymous. BUT even there they have to - at least - follow the rules, even though they may not make any further concessions.

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