It probably does not come as a surprise that perspectives matter. They shape our ideas of the world, of people around us and of ourselves, they influence the way we interact with and treat each other. This is a look at what perspectives do if you are a student with a disability.

with an interview with Dr. Nicholas Buchanan

 by Jenna Green


Let us assume that for whatever culture or time-specific reasons you are told you are disabled. You will discover that depending on the kind of condition you have – its severity, frequency and notoriety (these often but do not always go together) – and depending on the models of disability your country subscribes to there are regulations in place, “special rules” of sorts, that can open up alternative paths.


If your country uses a medical concept of disability, your condition will be seen as a defect. The solution to a medical defect is rehabilitation, i.e. the welfare state offers services to those who are sufficiently needy and will help to remedy ailments. In a welfare state like Germany, for example, people with disabilities will need an ID for the “severely disabled”, thus proving they are properly handicapped in order to lay claim to most rights for people with disabilities, e.g. not only medical support but also things like employment protection. This is also the case with some of the rights you have as a student with a disability – an ID for the severely disabled will open some doors. In a welfare state, the state has to make sure that not too many people avail themselves of their services, i.e. people with disabilities will struggle to apply for services because many of the application processes are designed to keep investments to a minimum.


If your country uses a social concept of disability, your disability will be seen as the result of physical (and other) barriers, i.e. if one building is accessible for people with a wheelchair and another one is not, then the latter building makes this bodily condition into a disability, it disables you, so to speak. With this in mind, people with disabilities are seen as a minority group like any other, e.g. people of colour, who face systemic discrimination and who therefore need rights that protect them. In a civil rights state like the US, following the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities have a right to accommodation, they can sue the state if they are excluded by either organisational, physical or other structures. It is reminiscent of this perhaps very stereotypical American phrase “know your rights!”


This is different in Germany where many people with disabilities do not know they have rights or what these are. Even if they do, Germany sees rights for people with disabilities as generosity – rehabilitating the defective, and this means for example:

as a student with a disability, you will have to write countless applications for all support you might need with your studies; every application is a nit-picky negotiation with your examination board. By contrast, students with disabilities in the US will talk to the disability office, people who have been trained in medical and ethical matters, and discuss a support plan which will be guaranteed, not painstakingly negotiated against the current as it is in Germany. It is the US student’s right to be accommodated, it is not seen as “generosity” for a “defective person” that needs to be earned.

In order to illustrate how different lines of thinking create entirely different environments for students with a disability, I spoke with Dr. Nicholas Buchanan, Assistant Professor at the Chair of Science and Technology Studies at the UCF, and formerly Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota.


Jenna: Can you describe the support system for students with disabilities at a US university and provide some background as to where it comes from, what the underlying principles are?


Nicholas Buchanan: In the United States the law that governs this is the Americans With Disabilities Act which was passed in 1990. This law requires employers as well as universities to make “reasonable accommodations” for a person’s disability. It is important to note that the law presumes that the baseline is full inclusion.


[Explanatory remark: in Germany, the concept of “integration” is favoured, which explains why we have a two-tier educational system with “Regelschulen” and “Sonderschulen”. In the US, this would not be possible, “Sonderschulen” would not be allowed to exist.]


Consequently, the university or employer is responsible for doing what is necessary so that the person with a disability can participate as fully as possible.

The way that this manifests itself at a university is that university established offices that on the one hand, provided services to students with disabilities and on the other, assisted faculty and staff in meeting the requirements under the ADA. These offices centralised support for disabled students so that individual departments did not deal with this on a case-by-case basis; with the goal of standardizing procedures to ensure all students were treated equally.

At the University of Minnesota, the office is called Disability Service – it is the central resource for students and faculty staff alike. In addition, the office has specialized exam facilities, e.g. if a student requires a private room with minimal distractions as may be the case for a person with ADHD, their exam can be administered at the Disability Services office in an appropriate environment.


Jenna: If we take a concrete example: in Germany, you have to write to the Prüfungsamt, bargain with them every time you want accommodation, e.g. postpone an exam. For Studienleistungen, you will have to negotiate with the lecturers. I don’t know about the Prüfungsamt but I know that the lecturers, at least, have no guidelines as to how to handle the situation; they often feel overwhelmed. What would happen in Minnesota?


Nicholas Buchanan: It would be different in the United States. When students register with the disability office – this is voluntary by the way – the office will discuss with them which accommodations are necessary and reasonable and they will then create a list with concrete accommodations. As a professor, I simply see a letter from the disability office stating what sort of accommodations I should provide the student, e.g. I had a student who had dyslexia and her accommodation was to provide the exam in electronic form so that she could use a laptop computer during the exam and a screen reader which would read the questions to her.

It is not up to me what kind of accommodations the students receive. Oftentimes the letter doesn’t even state what the disability is. This is a good thing because as a historian I do not have the expertise to decide what sort of accommodation a person with a particular kind of disability needs in order to have full inclusion.

By taking a doctor’s report to the disability office, the student is able to allow people who have expertise in this intersection between disability and education to decide what an appropriate accommodation would be.


Jenna: Do you know if students have to approach the disability office every time they want accommodation? Is it a case-by-case system as it is in Germany?


Nicholas Buchanan: No, it’s not. Students do have to renew occasionally – and this takes into account that some disabilities are temporary and others are not – but if the student registers once, my understanding was that the registration is good for the entire academic year. A single letter would be given to the student and that student would take it to whatever professor is teaching the class they happen to be in.


Jenna: You have already hinted at it: privacy is understood very differently at German and US universities. In Germany, the argument is: if you write the letter detailing the symptoms without giving the official name of the diagnosis, this protects the student’s privacy. By contrast, it seems that a lot less information makes the round in the US.


Nicholas Buchanan: I think you are right and I think this is somewhat ironic because Germany arguably has stricter controls on individual privacy than does the United States. As an instructor I would oftentimes not be told what particular disability a student had. This was completely up to the student whether or not they wanted to share that with me. They did of course have to share with the disability office in order to make this determination of what constituted a reasonable accommodation but there they would only have to do it once.


Jenna: We should probably mention, for fairness’ sake, that no one tells German students they have to tell their lecturers about their condition; it’s just that in order to negotiate successfully, you have to forward some kind of proof.


Nicholas Buchanan: You used the term “negotiation” – for my students and I there was NO negotiation at that point. This is something that removes any pressure in terms of the students’ relationship with their faculty members. More often than not, students were quite willing to be open about what the particular issue was and would unprompted explain their situation to me. But this was a question that I was not permitted to ask.


Jenna: You said earlier it also removed pressure from you?


Nicholas Buchanan: Yes, I was glad that the responsibility of deciding which accommodation would be appropriate did not fall on my shoulders. The question of responsibility is of course important because in the United States the ADA provides for legal remedies, also known as lawsuits, if reasonable accommodations are not provided.


Jenna: So the students could actually sue…?


Nicholas Buchanan: The university. But then of course the individual faculty member would be dragged in because that’s where the reasonable accommodation is not provided. In the United States, disability is seen as a civil rights issue: not reasonably accommodating some disability is an infringement upon their civil rights, therefore you can sue.


Jenna: This leads me to another question: as a result of this, US universities presumably have to keep records, collect statistics concerning how many students with disability study at the respective university?


Nicholas Buchanan: There is clearly record keeping and statistics simply as a matter of proving compliance with the law, yes. One could imagine an unsuccessful defense for not providing reasonable accommodation being that they didn’t keep data on whether or not they did it. This would be an argument that simply would not fly in court.


Jenna: Is there anything we have not talked about yet that you would like to add?


Nicholas Buchanan: I think it is interesting that there can be such different systems for tackling what is essentially the same problem.


Jenna: I suppose it is conceptualised differently – whether it lies with the student or with the environment, thinking the student has to adapt or their surroundings.


Nicholas Buchanan: Yes. I mean, having grown up in the American system, this is what I know and what I assume to be normal. It is eye-opening to see it being dealt with in a very different way.