Revisiting classroom laptop bans from the intersections of disability, race & ethnicity

Image of a laptop surrounded by a red circle with a slash through it

What do you think about classroom laptop bans? (Image credit: http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/asbmbtoday_article.aspx?id=7860)

I don’t know about you, but I find my students’ use of laptops in the classroom to be a distraction. I really don’t like it. However, there’s more to the story than me, the faculty member in the laptop-in-the-classroom equation. Yes, it’s that time of year for professors, syllabus prep time. Time to re-consider our “technology in the classroom” policies. It’s also time for the usual round of online discussions about classroom laptop bans to take place as well.

You will likely see articles about the benefits of students taking notes by hand. These articles generally argue that taking notes by hand requires students to think more critically, and process the material into chunks that they are able to write down through this slower medium. And perhaps you will also see some articles suggesting that if we have to worry about students and their laptops, we might not be doing our best classroom work, pedagogically speaking. I think that’s a great point. Regardless, these articles have caused students and faculty at Cornell University to work on some compromises around a classroom laptop ban – along with many other universities around the country.

For ongoing commentary on this, follow Professor David Perry at @lollardfish on Twitter, who has written about classroom laptop bans here. Or you can check out this thread on the topic from a student with a disability, Ava Jae. Regardless of which articles you see in your social media feed, I have come to realize that there are three factors to consider related to classroom laptop bans, factors that intersect in important ways that have yet to be considered in social media (as far as I can see). These factors are disability, race and ethnicity.

It has already been argued that all-out laptop bans discriminate against some students with disabilities. You may say, “of course, I will accommodate any student with a disability that needs a laptop!” Here’s one problem with that. The use of that particular policy essentially “outs” students with disabilities, and requires them to potentially face the impact of disability discrimination in the form of pissed of students who aren’t allowed to use their laptops, or worse. But the problems do not stop there.

Another angle on using disability accommodation letters as the decision-maker for who gets to use laptops in the classroom requires us to look who has access to the clinicians needed for medical documentation of disabilities. Specifically, I am talking about the fact that not all folks have access to the types of clinicians who can provide them with the medical documentation necessary to obtain an accommodation letter from a University’s disability office. Compounding the matter is the fact that these medical documents often have to be updated on a yearly basis.

Even if undergraduate students are covered under their parents’ health insurance, the quality of that insurance may not allow for a neuropsychiatric evaluation given the limits on behavioral health coverage in many plans. For graduate students who are too old to be covered under their parents’ plans, the same issue applies. Often, university coverage for graduate students is provided at bargain basement rates, which means deductables are high and access to certain services are limited.

Graduate students are not generally known for their wealth, and if you add to that the high correlation between having a disability, being unemployed and living in poverty, you have a conundrum. And this is where race and ethnicity come in. We know that people with disabilities are often multiply marginalized based on their social identities, including race and ethnicity. And then there is the well-documented fact that people of color are less likely to have access to employer-sponsored insurance (the most common form of insurance in the United States), and are overall more likely to be uninsured as compared to White people. All of this suggests that students of color who have disabilities may be at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing accommodation letters.

Taking all of this into consideration, I have decided to open the floodgates and just “deal” with my own discomfort about the use of laptops in the classroom. Of course, I’ll start work on “dealing” only after having a frank talk with students about the need to respect others as they use the laptops in front of them. So, what about you? What will you choose to do this year around laptop use in the classroom? Leave your comment below.