Accommodate to Learn

The deadline had come and gone, and Michael’s final expository writing paper remained unfinished.
By Eric P. Newcomer and Anna M. Yeung

The deadline had come and gone, and Michael’s final expository writing paper remained unfinished. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t bring a sense of organization to his sentences and paragraphs. The preceptor recommended that he turn in whatever he had or face a failing grade on the paper.

“My teacher literally sent me an e-mail saying you should turn in your paper right now so you can pass the class,” says Michael, who requested his real name not be used for this article.

Instead Michael ignored the warning and took another two days to work on the paper. But the preceptor’s warning stood, and he had to retake Expos.

Now a junior, Michael has become an English concentrator who consistently gets A’s on his papers.

“Asperger’s people just process the world a little differently,” Michael says, referring to his neurological disorder. “It never occurred to me that I could possibly fail that.”

Knowledge does not come a priori. It must be consumed and built up—a book must be read, a lecture heard, or a topic debated. For some Harvard undergraduates that task comes with added obstacles, whether it’s attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, or dyslexia.

A new student arrives at the FAS Accessible Education Office nearly every workday to report a disorder, according to Sheila B. Petruccelli, the office’s interim director.

Many of those students will seek official recognition from the office to receive what are referred to as “accommodations,” a category that includes additional time on exams or peer note-takers.

“[T]he office is currently providing services to approximately 250 students, if we exclude students with physical disabilities, including vision and hearing impairments,” wrote Jeff A. Neal, college spokesman.

The Office is charged with a weighty responsibility: advancing the College’s stated mission “to create knowledge” in all students, disabled or otherwise, while making sure that accommodations are not taken unfair advantage of and maintaining the integrity of academic standards. Undergraduates who receive accommodations are not without complaints, but they do recognize the challenge in meeting both goals day-to-day, case-by-case.

And in this case, Michael has Asperger’s, a neurological condition that he says contributes to both his disorganization and his perfectionism. After failing the paper, he began what can be an arduous process: proving to the College that he had Asperger’s and needed accommodations. There were a number of steps, one of which was an all-day study at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Michael is not alone in his decision to turn to the AEO after a particularly tumultuous freshman fall. The Office mails information to every newly-admitted freshman and informs him or her of the availability of accommodations. Despite their outreach, every year it takes a tough semester to push some freshmen to consider that something else might be going on.

“Freshman year is a difficult year for probably everybody to some extent,” Petruccelli says.

Of course, a difficult semester alone does not qualify a student for an accommodation from the AEO. Students must submit their past diagnoses to the Office, which are reviewed by a professional neuropsychologist. The students are also asked to indicate their anticipated needs so that the neuropsychologist can evaluate those requests.

“The accommodations are there to level the playing field,” says Petruccelli. “It doesn’t give an unfair advantage.”


Mary, a senior, never suspected that her brain worked any differently from her those of her peers while growing up, even though a single test could take several class periods to complete. Mary, who asked that her real name not be used, assumed that she just took longer than others to focus and complete academic work. She still managed to be at the top of her class four years running, according to Mary. Her mother had suspected that she had severe ADHD since Mary was 3 or 4 years old, Mary says. However, her mother was wary of having Mary diagnosed because of the stigma their small, conservative town placed on medicated children with ADHD.

“They were considered the bad students, the out-of-control students, even by teachers,” Mary recalls. “[My mom] was worried that if I had extra time or accommodations that my academic status in the school would be delegitimized.”

However, because Mary was only able to finish roughly 60 percent of her standardized ACT and SAT exams, Mary’s mother encouraged her daughter to get diagnosed her senior year of high school. It was then that Mary also began taking Adderall. Mary says that when she applied to Harvard, she acknowledged that she received extended time on standardized tests.

Undergraduates are not required or prohibited from identifying that they have a disability or disorder that might affect their time at Harvard when applying to the College.

“For some, the disclosure of a disability in, say, a college essay, may make sense,” says James H. Wendorf, executive director for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “They want to talk about the steps they’ve taken to overcome that develop compensatory skills that may be of special interest to the College.” But others may not want their learning disability taken into account when they are evaluated for admission.

“It’s a very personal decision,” he says.

Harvard has become more open to admitting students who, despite their demonstrated thirst for knowledge, struggle to learn.

“Fifty years ago, students who were dyslexic were just considered stupid, and they could rarely have the opportunity to benefit from higher learning,” writes Howard E. Gardner, a professor of cognition and education at the Graduate School of Education, in an e-mail to The Crimson. During his five decades at Harvard, Gardner, who studies the nature of intelligence, has seen the University become a place that better understands the nuances of the challenges that some of its students face.

“I can say that some students with learning difficulties have performed brilliantly, and others have suffered and should never have been admitted, at least given our current state of knowledge and the intellectual prostheses at our disposal,” Gardner writes. “Perhaps some day that will change.”


Mary first started using academic testing accommodations for her then recently-diagnosed ADHD when she began freshman year at Harvard. After its evaluation, the AEO initially granted Mary time and a quarter on exams, even though she says that most students receive time and a half. She quickly discovered that even with the added time, she still couldn’t finish any exam at Harvard.

“I have to turn in a test with two blank pages on the end, and I’ve worked so hard on writing everything down and I’ve studied so hard,” Mary says. “I’m just reading the questions and writing as fast as I can, the same stuff as anyone else would.”

For Dylan, a junior in Eliot House, freshman year was a difficult transition. Dylan has dyspraxia, a disorder that affects motor skill development and consequently his ability to organize, manage time, and communicate. Dylan, who requested his real name not be used, underwent testing in September of his freshman year, but after months of waiting he still had not heard back from the AEO.

“I presumed that because I didn’t hear anything back, there wasn’t results to be had from it, other than you’re not qualified,” he says.

Dylan survived his first fall semester without any testing accommodations, though he occasionally was unable to complete tests in time. In April of his freshman spring, Dylan went to the AEO to check on the status of his evaluation. He was surprised to discover that he had long been qualified for time and a half on exams, but that the AEO had not contacted him to inform him of the results, he said. Dylan, however, believes that he was an atypical case.

“I think it was a one-time mistake from the accessibility office and they did apologize profusely,” he says. “I didn’t think it was something worth pushing because I was satisfied with my full exam results. I had only missed out on one semester. I was relieved that I did qualify because it was what I was used to.”

But there are instances of open disagreement between students and the AEO. Jack, a junior who asked that his real name not be used, was diagnosed with ADHD when he was in elementary school. Since then, he has received time and a half and the use of a word processor on tests and exams—another accommodation available through the AEO. Jack notes that his high school was very flexible, and he became dependent on extended testing time. Immediately after arriving on campus, the AEO contacted Jack to discuss obtaining extended testing time in college. At first, Jack faced skepticism from the AEO because his clinical test results were considered to be old and outdated. According to Petruccelli, the AEO requires up-to-date tests to ensure that the evaluation reflects the current abilities of a student.

“We need to know how you’re functioning today,” she says.

Jack says the AEO provided him with extended time on his exams only after “a grudging conversation,” with the warning that his accommodations would be removed the next semester if he did not undergo another round of updated testing.

“I was very frustrated with them at the time because I have this complete record of the past 10 years of my life where I have had consistently these problems and this data,” he says. “And they were like, ‘Well, by our metric you might have gotten better, so we’re not going to trust these numbers until you get an updated test.’”

Despite his initially negative perception of the AEO, Jack says that he understands why it has to treat incoming cases with a critical eye.

“I think it’s not easy to be an office that provides testing accommodations at statistically the smartest school in America because there’s going to be skepticism because people will be like, ‘These kids got into Harvard, why do they need academic accommodations?’” he says. “So necessarily the process for qualifying students is rigorous.”

Though Jack was used to time and a half on exams in high school, the AEO only granted him time and a quarter. According to Jack, this has proven to be more than adequate,


The AEO sits halfway between the Quad and the Yard, tucked inside the Registrar’s office. It is here that students come to talk about their struggles, accommodations, and sometimes the Red Sox.

“Part of being useful to a student is knowing who that student really is,” says Petruccelli.

But her office is all about business. Books on learning disabilities populate her office shelves; she’s currently reading “Hamlet’s Philosophy: A Practical Guide for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.” From her chair positioned behind her desk, Petruccelli faces a painting drawn by her nephew: a red sky above black mountains, with green grass below. It’s simple but pleasant.

“Everybody in the family made a great deal of fun of him,” she says, but ever the supportive aunt, Petruccelli proudly hangs it on the wall. “You shouldn’t squelch his creativity,” she recalls telling family members.

Sitting in her chair, wearing wide-rectangular glasses, and a blue turtleneck, Petruccelli frames the role she plays in undergraduates’ lives while FAS spokesperson Jeff Neal sits in on the interview.

It was to this office that Mary returned when she realized that her initial testing accommodation was not enough. She had not been able to complete a single test since freshman year, but it took until junior year to find the confidence to make an appeal to the AEO, Mary says.

“I may be a perfectionist, but I think that I understand how to control that tendency when I’m working on my test,” she says, “I think [my case] was pretty apparent and convincing.”

As a result of her efforts, the AEO temporarily granted her time and a half, even though they did not give Mary an official professional evaluation before extending her testing accommodations, she says. That year marked the first time in her three years at Harvard that she finished an entire exam. It was her Social Analysis 10 final, and she handed it in more than an hour after hundreds of peers had emptied the room.

“I found after my time here at Harvard, that they really do want to give you what you need,” Mary says. “They just want to make sure it’s appropriate.”


Mary’s academic struggles with her learning disability were not limited to exams—she also struggled to meet deadlines for papers.

“The real killer on my GPA freshman year, sophomore year too, was that I turned in at least 80 percent of my papers late,” she says. “I was having a really hard time managing papers where I would end up with three in a weekend.”

For the paper-writing courses, Mary says that she would not even hand her official letters from the AEO asking professors to grant students accommodations for their learning disabilities.

“There’s nothing in my accommodations letter from sophomore year that says anything about my ADHD affecting papers. And they’ll think, well it’s just an excuse anyway,” Mary says. “Yet the same problem that was affecting me on tests was affecting me on my papers.”

Mary brought the problem up to the AEO, who explained that they could not require that professors grant her extensions on papers as they did on exams. However, the AEO could make a note at the bottom of her accommodations letters explaining that, despite her best efforts, Mary could still have trouble meeting standard deadlines.

“More than anything else, professors are very understanding about giving extensions here,” Mary says. “I don’t think I would even have needed the letter. I just needed the letter to give me the confidence to ask.”

Mary points out, however, that she does not ask for an extension on every paper. Under normal circumstances, she will attempt to start her papers earlier and turn them in on time. In situations where she has multiple papers due on the same or consecutive days, she will ask for and usually be granted an extension of one or two days.

Jack also acknowledges that he likely takes longer than the average Harvard student to complete a writing assignment, but he did not ask the AEO to request paper extensions in his accommodations letter.

“For these materials I can work on ahead of time,” he says. “I don’t even think that it’d even be fair for me to get extended time because I’ve managed quite adequately with the circumstances.”

Michael, the junior English concentrator, says he occasionally requests extended paper deadlines—sometimes eliciting jealousy from his roommates.

“Some of my roommates kind of sneer and think I’m working the system because I’m getting an extra couple days,” he says. He adds in his defense, “What’s the point of writing a paper if I’m going to do a shitty job?”

For example, while his roommate rushed to finish a paper by the 5 p.m. deadline in a class they took together, Michael was able to rest easily knowing that he had more time to complete the essay.

“If they screw around and wait to do something at the last minute, it’s a situation,” he says. “With me, I may have been working that whole week on a particular paper.”

Michael says he spends days thinking about an essay’s structure and then puts pen to paper and sketches a rough—if sometimes chaotically disorganized—outline, typically filled with notes in the margins. In order to get going in the first place, he must have a clear desk and the right amount of focus.

“I just can’t sit down and [say] now is the time that I’m going to work,” says Michael.


According to the students interviewed, the general Harvard population is accepting of their disabilities and disorders, and these students are open about their conditions to their close friends. At the same time, some believe that some students do use learning disabilities, real or feigned, just for the perceived perks. Mary, for example, acknowledges that there are students who abuse ADHD medication for the artificially heightened focus.

“I think it makes it harder for students that are actually diagnosed because people see their diagnoses as less legitimate,” she says. “There are so many people trying to get the drugs to do stuff faster and easier.”

However, undergraduates who have been through the process say they believe that the AEO creates a sufficient barrier to prevent students from abusing the accommodation system.

“At the end of the day, that system is there in place to help people that do need it. And most people that do abuse it, I don’t know how much advantage they get over their peers.” says Dylan.

“I don’t think anybody tries to make life easier here. I think everybody says, ‘How can we make this more accessible to a student?’ That’s what our obligation is,” Petruccelli says of her office’s goal.

But every such statement is also counterbalanced by one about the rigors of the process. “The expert really looks at a wide range of assessments to determine if it really is a disability,” she says.

Moreover, there are strict limits to what types of accommodations are allowed. Curricular requirements apply to all students, regardless of their disability or disorder. One sticking point is the foreign language requirement, which can prove to be difficult for some students.

“I learn much more visually than other people do. Language classes are much more verbal,” Michael says. “Asperger’s people aren’t verbal learners.”

The National Center for Learning Disabilities encourages language requirement exemptions if an undergraduate’s disability or disorder has significant effects on his or her ability to learn languages, according to Wendorf.

“We strongly believe there should be a responsible allowance for exceptions particularly in the foreign language requirement,” he says. “American sign language is an alternative that a number of students with language-based learning disabilities choose.”

But Harvard does not offer that alternative. Petruccelli argues that Harvard has a responsibility to prepare all of its students for life after college. For example, if a student attends the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for a graduate degree in English, they are required to demonstrate a reading knowledge in at least two languages.

“What do we do when that student cannot get a Ph.D. without that knowledge?” she says.


Jack says that he hopes one day he will no longer depend on the accommodations. Years of developing organizational and coping strategies for his disorder have made its symptoms much more manageable. Midway through his freshman year of college, Jack stopped taking his ADHD medication and has been off it since. Being able to function off medication marks a personal victory for him.

“It’s not a good thing to be dependent on medication. There are side effects. You get to feel like it’s sort of a crutch,” he says. “Much like how these accommodations are a crutch.”

Jack admits that while off medication, he is noticeably more nervous and manic, and he finds it harder to concentrate naturally.

“It takes more work now, but I can achieve the same level of focus. With medication, it’s almost pushed on me,” he says.

According to Jack, one major reason he is slowly weaning himself from testing accommodations and medication is his desire to better prepare himself for a time when such accommodations will no longer be available.

“If your boss says, ‘Well, you need to have this on my desk by Wednesday,’ you don’t say, ‘Well, I have a learning disability, so you need to give me more time,’” he says. “It’s sort of a question of adapting to the reality and that’s what I hope to do.”

Meanwhile, Petruccelli says the College has no intention of encouraging students to reduce their accommodations.

“We don’t think of these as a sign that somebody is less than anybody else,” says Petruccelli. “If somebody uses a wheel chair, we don’t think that if they just try hard enough, they eventually won’t need the wheel chair anymore.”

Ultimately, the AEO and students both agree that accommodations exist to ensure that all students can obtain the knowledge that a Harvard degree symbolizes.

“We are very clear to students that when they earn a Harvard degree, they’re getting the same degree that everybody else gets,” says Petruccelli.

“In many ways, I don’t see myself as extremely disabled or disadvantaged,” says Dylan. “At Harvard, I feel like I am on the same level playing field as everyone else.”