Adaptations: What's Really Fair?

by Carolyn Ito

How many times have you heard the old lament, "It's not fair," from students, colleagues, parents, perhaps your own children? When my children used the phrase, it was often because they felt cheated or slighted. A sibling appeared advantaged in some way. Or perhaps a friend was allowed a privilege my child wasn't. In reply, I often said, "It is not the same, but it is fair. Fair does not mean equal. Fair means that you get what you need. What you want may not be what you need. A want and a need are not identical."

The philosophy a teacher, student, parent, or administrator has about fairness has significant impact on the adaptations chosen to meet the learning needs of students. Most of us act upon our own philosophies of fairness as we work with students of various abilities. Many educators make decisions that help students get what they need to succeed; however, teachers' philosophies vary. Some professionals feel it is unfair to treat any student differently. Others believe that students' unique needs must be considered and that everyone doesn't have to be treated the same.

Some adaptations are commonplace and universally accepted as fair in our society for people with disabilities. Glasses, contact lenses, and seeing-eye dogs are accepted adaptations for people with visual disabilities. Hearing aids, telephone volume control, captioned television programs, and signers at national political conventions are taken for granted. Elevators, motorized wheelchairs, walkers, and canes are accepted assistive equipment for people with limited mobility. In general, these adaptations are accepted as needed to help people succeed in schools, work environments, and community settings.

Classroom adaptations are sometimes more difficult for professionals to accept as fair and appropriate. These adaptations address problems related to modifications in the curriculum (e.g., a skills sequence change), the delivery system (e.g., text on tape), or evaluation procedures (e.g., oral testing), to help students benefit from instruction and perform more successfully in the classroom. It is important to think of classroom adaptations along a continuum. At one end, few adaptations are needed or those that are used require little effort to implement (e.g., preferential seating). Along the continuum, students could be in large groups, partnered with peers, at computers, in small groups, or with a volunteer. They could be listening to the text on tape or reading silently. They could draw an answer, take a test orally, or do fewer problems. At the other end of the continuum, more extensive accommodations may be required (e.g., alternative curriculum, full-time paraprofessional support). Adaptations should be provided based on what the students need to succeed.

Because your philosophy of fairness impacts your willingness to orchestrate adaptations, it is important to evaluate your philosophy on adaptations and where you would fall on the continuum. Perhaps the following questions will assist you in clarifying your own philosophy on adaptations. You may find it helpful to share and discuss this informal assessment with your colleagues.

Adaptation Philosophy Questions

Respond to these questions with yes, no or unsure:

  1. Should all students be treated equally?

  2. Should adaptations be made so that all students can succeed?

  3. Is it fair to change the rules for some students?

  4. Are teachers asked to do too much already and don't have time to adapt lessons?

  5. Should I adapt my teaching to a child's way of learning?

  6. Should I do whatever it takes to help a student succeed?

  7. Do adaptations compromise academic integrity?

  8. Can all my students learn if I can find a way to help them?

  9. Do adaptations send the wrong message to the students (i.e., some students are held to different standards)?

  10. Will parents be upset if their child has different assignments?

  11. Is it all right to have outcomes vary within a class?

  12. Adaptations are fair, but do I need help in designing them?

  13. Do all students want to and try to learn?

  14. Is the problem made worse by adapting a part of the curriculum?

  15. If I let one student do something differently, will I have to let all students do it?

If you answered yes to numbers 1,3,4,7,9,10,14, and 15, your current adaptation philosophy may allow for few adaptations. If you answered yes to numbers 2,5,6,8,11,12, and 13, then you are more inclined to make adaptations. Uncertain responses may suggest that your philosophy is not yet solidified and you may wish to further explore the issues and methods for adaptive instruction.

Suggested Reading

Choate, J.S. (Ed.). (1993). Successful mainstreaming: Proven ways to detect and correct special needs, Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Johnson, L. and Pugach, M. (1990). Classroom teachers' views of intervention strategies for learning and behavior problems: Which are reasonable and how frequently are they used? The Journal of Special Education, 24, 69-84.

Salend, S.J. (1994). Effective mainstreaming: Creating inclusive classrooms (2nd.ed.). New York: Macmillan.

Stainback, S., Stainback, W., & Forest, M, (Eds.) (1989). Educating all students in the mainstream of regular education. Baltimore: Paul H. Brook Publishing Co.