There is a Kenyon bubble. By that I mean there is an expectation that the basic rules of life operate differently here than everywhere else. For the most part, this is fine; we all learn to accept that Kenyon time means 15 minutes late, Middle Path means Middle Ice Rink and all-student emails are platforms for debate. One of these Kenyon rules is that every faculty member can create their own attendance policy.
There are two limits that accompany this freedom. The first is that a student can’t miss more than 25 percent of the class meetings in a course, and the second is that absences can be excused for college activities, sports and dean-approved absences. There is still a line which states that the Cox Health Center can excuse absences, but this rarely happens. The Kenyon attendance policy might appear to simply be an outdated quirk, but the implications of this policy have a direct and devastating impact on students with disabilities and chronic illnesses.
My first semester of college I dropped a course largely because the attendance policy stated that any additional absence after three would result in a five percent reduction of the final grade. This year I considered dropping a course necessary for my major because the professor stated in no uncertain terms that any absence after the two they permitted would result in a three percent reduction in the final grade. These policies are extreme for any student, but for me they feel insurmountable. As a disabled student, there are days when I physically cannot go to class. The idea that an unexpected flare-up in my disability could cause my grade to drop is terrifying.
Although I have a letter from my medical provider which explicitly states that I need accommodations for absences, the most that Kenyon was willing to ask of my teachers was that they “consider” my health when determining whether or not I should have absence leniency. Not only does this practice go against my own medical accommodations, it seems to go against several state and federal laws. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects college students with disabilities from discrimination, which, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, means that institutions must “[m]ake reasonable modifications in their policies, practices, and procedures to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability, unless it would result in a fundamental alteration of the program.”
Without a guiding policy at Kenyon, whether or not absences fundamentally alter a course is determined on a case-by-case basis. Advocating for students with disabilities and chronic illnesses is made all the more difficult because there are currently only two Student Accessibility and Support Services (SASS) advisors. Although both are exceptional, two advisors is not nearly enough to advocate on behalf of every student at Kenyon who requires accommodations. This year, roughly 25 percent of Kenyon students receive accommodations, meaning the SASS office is responsible for working with the individual needs of at least 470 students.
This semester I was able to achieve some level of leniency on attendance policies in part because my professor was understanding, but largely because I was willing to be transparent about my medical history and advocate for myself. Achieving accommodations in this way sets a dangerous precedent because not only does it necessitate that a student reveal their disability and/or chronic illness, but it also distorts the definition of an accommodation. An accommodation is a legally required alteration to course policies or practices in order to allow students with disabilities and or chronic illnesses equal educational opportunities. An accommodation is not a favor. However, when faculty are instructed to determine whether a student should receive an accommodation, the line between favor and accommodation is significantly blurred. Students advocating for themselves further blurs this line.
As Kenyon continues to assess the changes it must make to become inclusive and non-discriminatory, it is essential that they consider the impact of outdated policies and limited supports for students needing accommodation. Without standardized absence policies across departments or consistent approval of absence accommodations, students with disabilities and chronic illnesses will continue to be disproportionately impacted.
Hannah Sussman ’25 is an opinions editor at the Collegian. She is a sociology major from Glencoe, Ill. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.