Jung, K. E. (n.d.). Chronic Illness and Academic Accommodation: Meeting Disabled Students’ “unique needs” and Preserving the Institutional Order of the University. Journal of Sociology, 23.

Note: All pull quotes below are from this paper. The additional comments and questions are my own, unless otherwise attributed

Salient Details


This Masters thesis from UVic Sociology uses institutional ethnography to look at the effect of the university’s accommodations policy on female students with chronic illness.


To demonstrate:

  • the accommodations model, used at most Canadian universities shifts the “obligation for change” from the institution to individual students and educators,
  • the gap between the intentions of the policy and the students’ lived-experience of its application.

Theoretical/Conceptual Framework:

  • The social model of disability vs the biomedical approach to disability
    • accommodations model
  • Marxist feminist ontology


  • Institutional ethnography
  • textual analysis
  • interviews and informal discussions with 6 students, faculty and administrative staff


Research findings are minimally presented in this version of the paper. The original Masters Thesis is not available. This paper concludes that “University disability policies are a good example of textually mediated ruling relations that organize, regulate and coordinate the activities of students and faculty” and that the “unintended” negative consequences on individual students deserve further attention and investigation.

My Notes With Quotes:

While each informant had her own particular understanding of the aims and uses of the disability policy, and while each had experienced accommodation in completely different ways, they nonetheless all depended on some form of accommodation to remain engaged in their studies and they all referenced the university’s policies and procedures in their ordinary talk about their experiences at the university.

Observation: it is important to note that not all students with disabilities will voluntarily self-identify, nor will they all make use of formal supports such as the Centre for Accessible Learning. Limiting research participants to those with open or closed case files with CAL would leave out the experience of students who navigate their education without formal support.

While policies and procedures that provide services, assistance and accommodation for people with disabilities aim at correcting inequitable outcomes of social arrangements, the process of accommodation itself i.e., repeated reallocations of “scarce” resources and providing special “exceptions” to the ordinary rules also singles out disabled people as targets of resentment.

Observation: The experience of being treated as “exceptions” has a social and personal impact on the student. Many don’t want anyone to go “above and beyond” or do anything out of the ordinary for them and may reject formal and informal accommodations for this reason.

Students requesting any form of accommodation can be made to feel like they are being given “special treatment” or “unfair advantages” over other students, but when the system is designed around an assumed set of abilities, how is bending what is already an unfair rule offering an unfair advantage? It is only if you assume the system is designed with some kind of neutral “fairness,” rather than an ableist bias, that you would come to that conclusion.

Since the 1980’s and 1990’s, most universities have put in place services, resources, policies, procedures and systems of appeal that are designed to ensure the fair and consistent treatment of people with disabilities, enabling their participation in all aspects of university life. While the obligations of the university are situated within a legal framework (provided by The Canadian charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 15 (1)), local policies have considerable flexibility in spelling out a more informal system of mutual obligations, responsibilities and procedures (for both the”university” and the student) designed to provide “otherwise qualified” disabled students with “reasonable” opportunities to access and participate as members of the university community, at the same time that they protect the university from unreasonable expense or “undue hardship” and from compromising lowering academic standards.

Observation: great summary of the rationale and application of disability policies at Universities. She goes on to note that the legislative framework that these policies operate within also establishes definitions for the key terms “otherwise qualified student,” “disability,” “undue hardship” and “reasonable accommodation.”

Taken together, the university’s policies, procedures and re-sources constitute an administrative disabilities apparatus that manages the “needs” and “problems” encountered by students with disabilities, usually by providing some form of service or accommodation. The services and accommodations provided through the disabilities apparatus are intended to foster the full inclusion and equal participation of students with disabilities in all aspects of university life, in accordance with human rights legislation.

Observation: This concern for managing the “needs” and “problems” represents one of the key concerns of Institutional ethnography – the organizational apparatus used to manage work.

This intention to foster full inclusion is interesting – is a problem solving POV necessarily consistent with fostering inclusion?

Even so, how “problems” are solved is important – does the apparatus favour a quick-fix solution (the most efficient solution) over an enduring solution? For example, if a visually impaired student using assistive technology is assigned an inaccessible reading there are many ways to solve the problem:

  • find an alternative version of the text that is accessible (educator or librarian might be able to do this quickly, with little cost)
  • have the Centre for Accessible Learning (or counterpart) create an accessible version of the text (staff would have skills to do this quickly, with pre-allocated cost of staff-time)
  • provide an alternative reading that is available in an accessible format (educator could do this quickly, with little cost)
  • require educators to curate digitally accessible course readings (this is a policy-level solution that would require administrative oversight, faculty training resources and budget, and possibly budget earmarked to version any text that isn’t currently available in an accessible format. This is a more enduring solution, but requires more time and budget.)

Academic standards-which are organized around practices of competition amongst students for hierarchically ranked grades…

Question: Is the push to encourage student co-creation and collaboration within higher-ed fundamentally inconsistent with assessment strategies that are hierarchical? If we were able to take competition out of higher ed, would more space be created for inclusive practices that genuinely support collaboration and co-creation?

RI#4 “…one of the things that I found was that if there was someone who was disabled in the class before you then your teacher automatically assumed that you required the same accommodations that the other person did. …And if you had a teacher who really couldn’t process that you weren’t the same as that person, then you ran into conflict, you ran into this big barrier because you had to try and educate as you were going along and also trying to be seen as an individual…”

Observation: There’s a beautiful inclusion of participant quotes here that speak for themselves.

The sentiment expressed here reminds me of the argument that we build a sort of literacy of the human complexity of disability over time by working with students with disabilities – the more exposed you are to the nuances and diversity of experiences, the better you are able to imagine what’s possible/needed to be inclusive (Oswal & Meloncon, 2017).

RI#1: “I usually came up with a plan myself, not expecting people to come and cater to my needs, and they were very accommodating.”

Observation: This is important. Many people with disabilities take on the responsibility to figure out a solution or work-around. That is admirable, and admittedly they have first-hand experience to know what’s needed. The other route taken is to work through an advocate/caseworker through something like the Centre for Accessible Learning. Both pathways to accommodation take responsibility for thinking about inclusive practices off of the educator and potentially stall the educator’s growth in building their inclusive skills and literacies – they are made passive learner, given the answer, instead of being encouraged to be active learners who need to ask questions, possibly make mistakes, but ultimately deduce a reasonable way forward.

Foucault writes that “individualization appears as the ultimate aim of a precisely adapted code” (1977, p. 99). Indeed, the individualization of accommodation effectively compartmentalize decisions about academic accommodation to particular situations and specific students and instructors. Therefore, the more difficult procedural changes entailed by academic accommodation are never “shared” amongst the disabled student population in the way that physical changes to the landscape, or the acquisition of specialized adaptive equipment can be used by many disabled students.

Observation: Here again we see a hiding away of how people with disabilities are being accommodated. Educators aren’t able to learn, fellow students aren’t able to learn, colleagues with disabilities aren’t able to learn when the individualized services are shrouded – there may be some services that students with disabilities would like kept private but how might things change, how might stigma and social responsibility shift if people were better able to see where/how their ways of doing things create barriers?

…faculty also perform the “work” of engaging with the students, considering the student’s suggestions, and perhaps even modifying or changing their own teaching and evaluation practices. Together, the coordination of the work of students and faculty protect the university, as an institution, from the “critical impact of the wear and tear” of continual adjustment and readjustment (Schaffer & Lamb, 1981, p. 8)

Observation: Interesting, the policy, said to be in place to support the student’s rights, is in effect protecting the institution from having to change its conception of itself or of what university students and educators should be able to do.