How Do Attendance Policies Hurt Disabled and Chronically Ill Students?


I'd like to share viral twitter story that I found powerful. The tweet story starts with, "As a disabled student, the first thing I do when we get the syllabus is to flip to the attendance policy". The most powerful line to me in her story was, 

The goal of attendance policies is usually to ensure students are putting effort into attending class. They also often recognize the value of in-class interactions between students. However, these same well-intentioned policies often have unintended consequences for disabled and chronically ill students. 

I invited you to read her entire story and discuss: 

  • What are your thoughts about attendance polilcies? 
  • Did this perspective make you consider any attendance policies? 
  • What steps should we take about student attendance? 
  • How do we develop instruction that provides student who miss class the opportunity to catch up? 
  • How do we shape our professional development to help teachers create instruction to adapt to students who miss class?

I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts? 

Kathy Tracey


Thanks, Kathy, for sharing this article on attendance.  I read it and think it's a great discussion topic.  As with most complicated issues, there are numerous factors at play.  This piece highlights the experience of students in higher education, so I'm responding to that context here.  The author doesn't specifically mention the fact that these institutions are bound by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) offers resources and guidance on accessing accommodations in higher education settings.  Flexibility with attendance is one of the accommodations provided for under the ADA. 

While disability support services can vary widely from institution to institution, it's important to know your rights.  Learning how institutions are helping students to manage disability-related attendance can be used to advocate for better services in places where policies are not as well developed, or supported.  I suggest anyone looking for an example of attendance accommodations done well to check out Oregon State University, and their Flexibility with Attendance/Assignments page.  This is just one example of many out there, showing how we should be accommodating those with disabilities in higher education.


Mike Cruse

Disabilities and Equitable Outcomes Moderator


Hi Mike, 

Thanks for continuing the discussion. While this student's experience is certainly focused on higher education, I wonder how it transitions to adult education? Do we have attendence policies in the IET programs or the general classroom? And what about students who choose not to disclose a disabilty? I'm also thinking about students who don't have a disability diagnosed.These are complex probelms that could lead to student attrition. 

I'd love to hear some more thoughts about attendance policies from our community members. 


The ADA also applies to Adult Education programs.  Of course, this only applies to students with documented disabilities, and who chose to disclose their disability.  I'm also curious to learn more about how program attendance policies are decided, and what flexibility they provide for learners with and without disabilities.

Mike Cruse 

This article from Franz Feierbach, Associate Dean for Operations and Academic Readiness in the School of Applied Technology, Salt Lake Community College, offers some interesting thinking about making clock-hour competency-based education programs more flexible.  These are the creative approaches some programs are using to meet the needs of learners with schedule challenges.

Mike Cruse

LINCS Moderator

This topic is something I've put a lot of thought into. We have a waiting list for our classes, so the attendance policy is mostly used to avoid having a lot of empty seats while others wait. I have made exceptions for people who disclose disabilities, but I'm not comfortable with that either (i.e. relying on students being comfortable enough to disclose). Our compromise is that some classes don't have an attendance policy and some do, so those folks and others who can't come regularly (due to work/childcare, etc) can still participate. It's still not a great solution. Obviously the real answer is to fund our programs well enough to a) not have waiting lists and b) actually provide real accommodations, but in the meantime...

Thanks, Lisa, for your thoughts about attendance policies. Of course I agree that the "the real answer is to fund our programs well enough to a) not have waiting lists and b) actually provide real accommodations" but I have been talking with adult education programs recently that have found another helpful solution: learning circles. These are small non-formal groups, often led by a trained  volunteer facilitator, that meet weekly for two to three hours face-to-face, typically for six to 14 weeks,  and have an online course or app that provides the structured instruction. Some programs use these to provide services to people on their waiting lists; some to provide more flexible scheduling for current learners who, for reasons such as work demands and work schedule changes or sudden new family responsibilities , might otherwise need to "stop out" or drop out; or for learners who want to extend their learning, i.e. go to class and getting more instruction or practice in a learning circle. A national scale-up project sponsored by World Education's Education Technology Center, and its 18-month pilot project before the scale-up, offer many good examples of adult English language programs or schools that use learning circles to meet learning needs that otherwise, often because of funding constraints, cannot be met. I wonder if learning circles might be designed specifically for people with certain disabilities. Anyone have thoughts about that?

David J. Rosen

Two quick initial thoughts: a) this requires self-disclosure and b) puts volunteers, instead of professional teachers, with students who would most benefit from quality instruction. Whether "trained" or not, this is usually not equal treatment.

Thanks for sharing this idea about using learning circles to support instruction, David.  I wonder if World Education's pilot included considerations for seat time requirements?  Does the time spent in a learning circle count towards classroom hours for program requirements?  As you know, seat time requirements are used for a variety of reasons. As it relates to IET, seat requirements may be used to determine eligibility for some industry certification and licensure exams.  In these cases, even students with documented disabilities, whose disclosure affords them accommodations for reduced/flexible scheduling, must meet the same seat time requirements as their non-disabled peers in order to be eligible to test.  For this reason, it seems like learning circles might work for 'people with certain disabilities' and with certain learning outcomes in mind.  

I also agree with Lisa that in creating a learning circle program specifically for persons with disabilities, program managers would need to consider the capacity of volunteers to provide accommodations for a cohort, each with potentially unique needs.  A learning circle might lend itself more to an integrated group approach, comprised of both persons with and without disabilities.  I'm curious what others' thoughts and experiences are with learning circles and persons with/out disabilities.


Mike Cruse


Hello Mike and others,

The World Education English Now! learning circles scale-up project, as was the case with the 18-month pilot project before it, was funded by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, so WIOA requirements were not a focus, and in some sites were not considered at all. Think of learning circles offered by adult basic skills (including ESOL/ESL) programs as a way to help English language learners who are on a wait list for English classes, or learners whose work schedules or other life demands make it impossible to attend regular classes, or learners for whom classes do not provide as much English language instruction -- and especially practice -- as they want. Learning circles may also meet other needs; for example I am a facilitator of a new learning circle at my branch public library in Boston for people who want to improve their pubic speaking skills. This is a very popular learning circle in many countries.

Intentionally, learning circles are much more flexible in their requirements and more varied in their designs than most traditional classes and, as a result, they offer ways that programs may be able to solve problems they have not been able to address with their existing WIOA or other public funding. For example, recently I learned about an ESL program that used learning circles to introduce students to English language learning apps. In just a few weeks, the learning circle participants became proficient in using these apps. So much so, the participants were asked to offer their expertise to students in the regular classes -- where very often teachers did not have the time, interest, or smartphone comfort level to help their students learn how to use apps. The learning circle participants went to every class, spent time with the students who were interested in using learning apps and, as a result, the whole program had a record number of students using learning apps, including some of the award-winning Adult Literacy XPRIZE apps..

It may be that in some cases some learning circle participants have disabilities that they have not disclosed, that they chose a learning circle instead of a class because it is usually smaller, involves a limited amount of face-to-face and a maximum amount of online time, or because the supportive learning circle culture supports peer-learning and participant leadership. There is a great deal that we don't know yet about how learning circles may benefit adult basic skills learners. Where there is a rapid increase in the number of adult learners who have portable digital devices, especially smartphones, and where they want to learn how to use online or blended (face-to-face and online) learning, learning circles may be their digital onramp.

David J. Rosen