News & Media

Inequality Under the Guise of Equality: Diagnosing Neurotypical Children for Accommodations Undermines Neurodiversity

By Shoshana Holt-Auslander

As a graduate student who was diagnosed with dyslexia at the beginning of my first year in high school, I am outraged by the high school parents who try to increase the competitive edge of their already successful children by having a health professional certify a neurodiverse condition that they don’t have so that they qualify for accommodations. They are inflicting harm on those children who actually need those accommodations and risk depriving everyone in society of the contributions those children would bring, as adults, if allowed to succeed. Complicit health professionals are equally at fault. Parents need to stop asking and health professionals need to stop going along.

I was a kid with a phenomenal memory and a gift for learning language by ear, along with a lot of other talents and capacities. I also, however, had a terrible time decoding words on a page.  Like many other kids in my situation, my memory enabled me to mask my difficulties in reading until middle school – I just memorized the words. My teachers did notice that I was working harder to read than they thought I should need to. Parents who seek to improve their scholastically successful children’s chances of admission to elite colleges by having a health professional certify that they qualify for accommodations are actively harming those children like me who actually needed those accommodations.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which undergirds the accommodations system, was designed to allow all Americans to fully participate in, and contribute to, society. The underlying principle is that disabilities that can be remedied through transformation of the built environment (ramps, elevators, quiet rooms, etc) or mechanical assistance (hearing aids, visual enhancement), or extra time for particular tasks, must be. Furthermore, in each case, individuals must show that they are in need of accommodation and with that accommodation can succeed in the task (or the job).  That is the definition of reasonable accommodation.  I want to underscore that the ADA, by enabling every member of society to live up to their potential, serves everyone. If it is abused by those who don’t need it, that abuse harms everyone.

There are two kinds of harm:

  1. The abuse perpetuates educational inequalities. The provision of extra time in standardized testing is intended to enable individuals to process information at a pace appropriate for them given their diagnosis and not to allow for time to review work. When students who don’t need extra time have it, they use it to do even better on tests, falsely inflating their scores (and deflating those of the students who need the time to simply finish the test).
  2. When the system is abused, everyone becomes aware of the abuse and all of those receiving accommodations come to be viewed with suspicion.  This creates a hostile environment for those with genuine needs.

In my personal experience, the availability of extra time during high school examinations was invaluable in ensuring that I could perform at my best. This accommodation allowed me to work through different sections of standardized tests over several days, providing me with the necessary rest and mental space to tackle each portion with clarity and focus. For students like me, who have the capacity for excellent performance but whose brains require more time to process information, completing these exams within the conventional timeframe would have resulted in a lower score that did not accurately represent my abilities.  By extending the testing duration to compensate for our unique needs, we are given a fair chance to demonstrate our true capabilities on these assessments.

Furthermore, a late initial testing date should not be read as an effort to scam the system.  Many schools do not recognize that children are in need of diagnostic testing at an early age.  Given the stigma still attached to a diagnosis of a learning disability, ADHD, depression or anxiety, many parents also resist recommendations to have their children tested if those are offered.  It should not be assumed that students diagnosed only in high school are gaming the system.  In my case, my African American father, who saw me as the bright, curious, inventive child I was, refused to have me tested because he didn’t want me to be defined as another “broken” Black child. I wasn’t tested until a crisis at the end of 8th grade forced the issue.  This delay in diagnosis should not discount the difficulties I faced or negate the need for appropriate accommodations when they were identified. Academic struggles can manifest in a myriad of ways, and it is essential to consider each individual’s unique circumstances when determining the necessity of accommodations in standardized testing situations.

In conclusion, the misuse of extra time accommodations on standardized tests not only diminishes the experiences of those with legitimate needs but also contributes to educational disparities and unfair advantages among test takers. The purpose of offering accommodations such as extra time is to level the playing field for individuals who require additional support to demonstrate their true abilities, not to provide an unwarranted advantage to those who do not need it. It is imperative that the integrity of standardized testing remains intact by ensuring that accommodations are allocated judiciously and ethically to those who genuinely require them. By advocating for a fair and inclusive testing environment, we can uphold the principles of academic integrity and equitable opportunities for all students.

About the Author: Shoshana Holt-Auslander is from Chicago, IL. She first became involved with Eye to Eye as a mentor at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools during her junior year of high school. She graduated from Colorado College in 2021. After graduating, Shoshana first worked as a clinician, mentor, and trainer before being promoted to Associate Center Director of a reading remediation program. She returned to working with Eye to Eye as a 2023 Fellow working with our CEO and Co-Founder David Flink. This year, Shoshana is the co-founder of the ND Alliance club at her graduate school and is excited to continue sharing her story and advocating for the neurodiverse community.