Strict attendance policies uphold ableism


Photo credit: Andrea Nebhut

Illustration by Andrea Nebhut

I am thankful to say that during my time at Trinity, I have had amazing professors. Every semester I walk away thinking about how lucky I am to have some of the professors that I did. Unfortunately, a commonality in many classrooms is strict attendance policies (a phenomena that is not unique to Trinity). Even worse is the fact that for every bad experience I’ve had with an attendance policy, there are other students with much worse stories. Some professors have a zero-tolerance policy that doesn’t allow absences whether they are excused or not. The faculty handbook’s only guideline regarding setting a class’s attendance policy is that “the instructor in each course is expected to state an attendance policy in the course syllabus.” There is no recommendation or prohibition of what policy professors should use. These policies are detrimental to able-bodied students and dangerous for chronically ill and disabled students.

There have been numerous occasions where I’ve sat in class in agony, refusing to leave or skip because if I was absent my grade would drop. Forcing students to choose between their health and academic success is unfair. Navigating life while constantly worrying about your health is burden enough: there is no need to add the extra layer of worrying about how it might affect your academic performance. Sitting in class while experiencing limited mobility, pain and fatigue hardly makes it possible to be a present and active student. It makes much more sense to rest and catch up on lecture notes later when you have the energy. Something that able-bodied people misunderstand is that, even on a good day, everyday activities take more effort for disabled people. So on our bad days, walking across campus or sitting in a classroom is an uphill battle. Although disabled students can receive accommodations, there is no accommodation that allows unlimited excused absences. Student’s best bet is to have a conversation with their professor and hope that they are understanding.

Coming to class on a bad-health day for disabled and chronically ill students is more complex than it is for able-bodied students. It is similar in that both groups of people need time to heal and overworking our bodies when we are sick prolongs the healing process. But unlike when an able-bodied person gets a cold, our illnesses or disabilities will not go away. We have to constantly deal with overextending ourselves and not giving our bodies the time it needs to heal. It feels as if we cannot let our bodies catch up with the stress of life.

Despite strict attendance policies, it is important for students to miss class when they are sick in order to prevent the spread of germs. This is not a matter to be taken lightly when many students have jeopardized immune systems that make common illnesses like the cold much more serious for them. It is reckless for professors to urge students to come to class when they are contagious because they are putting their peers in danger. Instead, professors should encourage students to rest when they become sick, not just to allow them the time they need to heal but also to ensure that germs are not spread.

As students, our homework and grades should not come before our health, but the campus culture at Trinity encourages us to overwork ourselves. This campus is constantly striving to be more academically rigorous at the cost of student health. If we aren’t making the perfect grades and being a campus leader we are perceived as incompetent, hurting our mental health. If disabled and chronically ill students take the time they need to heal they are perceived as lazy by those who do not understand disability. To stop this rhetoric it needs to come from the top down. If our professors encourage us to take care of ourselves it will teach students to prioritize themselves.

If professors take anything away from this article it is this: missing class is not a sign of disrespect towards you or a disinterest in learning. Missing class is a necessary part of healing. Disabled and chronically ill students deserve the right to prioritize their health without the guilt trip of missing class. The university should encourage faculty to have attendance policies that benefit disabled students. If we take the time our body needs to heal right when it tells us it needs it, not just during the weekends, we can be more productive in the long run. The fatigue that comes with being sick, mental health days, pain flare-ups and many more “excuses” are not just flimsy reasons to get out class — they are issues that need to be attended to so students can be more attentive in and out of class in the long term.