Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Processing Deficits and Accommodations:

Accommodations are an important part of any IEP, 504 Plan, or College Disability Support. Unfortunately, it is often an area that receives the least amount of scrutiny on an individualized level. Too often, I encounter plans that start as the “standard menu” for a given disability; all successive plans then copy the original plan with little change or commentary.

Take my favorite example, students with ADHD who receive extra time on testing. How many times have you seen these students being the first ones done? With the exception of our day-dreamers who lose track of time, many students with ADHD rush through their tests. They answer quickly – correctly or not. They also tend to give up quickly. That is not to say that this is a bad accommodation. It may or may not be. However, that is my point. Are we making our accommodations strategic and specific to the individual and their disability? I will comment more on this specific example later.

Let’s focus on a more holistic approach. Why are we looking at an accommodation? Most accommodations fall into three categories.

1 – We need to address a permanent obstacle caused by the disability. Books on tape and/or Braille for students with a Visual Impairment are one example. Barring a major medical break-through, it is reasonable to assume that this need will not change.

2 – We want to overcome a skill that has yet to be remediated or developed. For example, consider a student with a reading disability taking a Civics test. We want an accommodation on this test that allows the instructor to assess mastery of the Civics curriculum, not on the severity the reading disability. Any accommodations in this category come with two major caveats. First, we need to make sure that we pair these accommodations with a plan to remediate or reasonably improve the skill deficits. Is this student also placed in an intensive and evidence-based reading program? Finally, we also need to make sure that the accommodations are aligned to future goals and opportunities. College bound Juniors and Seniors should have accommodations that look like what they may receive in college. Whenever possible, fancy assistive technology should not replace the technology that can be readily adapted on most modern computers, and, therefore, what a future employer would be willing to provide.

3 – The accommodation only meets an immediate goal, like higher grades. In most cases, we do not purposefully intend to be in this category. We either get blinded by the pressures of current, urgent needs, or we try, but fail, to be in category 2. If a disabled student is never held accountable to meet a deadline, we are reducing the likelihood of employment in any job with deadlines.

The most common accommodations that I see are for Learning Disabilities. In this regard, I can also give some specific advice. Do not make the common mistake of focusing on the academic problem. The best accommodations are rooted in the psychological processing deficit. You may have a learning disability in math, but what is the root cause? Better psychological assessments in learning disabilities will identify the processing deficit. If you know your problem in math is due to a deficit in visual-motor integration, we can now design a specific accommodation plan that will address that specific challenge.

Let’s go back to our student with ADHD wants extra time on tests. With a little inquiry and review, we discover that the root problems are poor self-awareness of time and the propensity to get lost on tangents. Both are very common with this disability. In this example, the student has an exam with 6 essay questions in two hours. Let’s give this student extra-time, but let’s also address the real problems. If we give only give extra time, the student may still be on question #2 after two hours into the exam. There is only one hour left to complete the remaining four questions because of poor time management and too much tangential writing. Let’s be more strategic and expand on giving three hours for the exam by only giving two questions per hour. Now, we have created a structured environment that limits the impact of the disability on the exam’s outcome.

This accommodation would fall into Category #2. Therefore, we would definitely want to enroll this student in a study or test-taking skills class to work on these skill deficits. This requires a little more effort, but the reward is so much greater.


Of course, I cannot discuss accommodations without a discussion of the concept of Universal Design of Instruction which can render most accommodations unnecessary. From an educational and neuro-psychological point of view, it is also better for all learners. However, this is a topic for another post.




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