Why Are Accommodations So Inaccessible?

Nex Bortnick | 6/12/24

I want to start this off by saying that I have ADHD.

I have always had challenges when it comes to timed assessments, whether it is a math test or a timed essay, because I tend to zone out entirely and lose minutes of time. No matter how many strategies or tactics my teachers have taught me to help, I still zone out and lose focus. The thing that helps me with this is my 504 plan; I get a variety of accommodations, but the most important is extra time on all assignments and tests.

This year I desperately wanted to go to districts, a lot of my friends were going, and I had never been before. Unfortunately, my main event, impromptu is not offered, so I decided to pick up extemp as it is the closest thing to impromptu and the only thing I could try to learn in time. There were some differences, the evidence and formality for one, but the hardest thing about it was sitting still and writing for 30 minutes:

As I was learning it, I already noticed the time was an issue. No matter what I did I used all my time typing and had no time to memorize, leading me to often forget sources – saying CNN or NBC for articles found on different news sites - evidence, and even entire points I make. My friend gave me an outline, with each paragraph going into specific points and a guideline of where you should be as time passed. The overly organized format confused me, and the time stamps stressed me out. More and more went into helping me but the same issue persisted, so I asked my coach – who is also the NJSDL President – if I could use my accommodations in extemp rounds. I felt that if I had the extra time I get for school I would perform much better.

She said no.

I went to districts with little hope, mostly just going to hang out with friends. When ballots came out, i did horrendously. I was frustrated beyond belief as I was denied the accommodation I normally get in school and did awfully without it. I did not plan on returning to extemp, and still do not.

I decided to write about it and get some attention to the issue. I spoke to my coach again, and asked if accommodations were available at all. She responded that they could not be provided as coaches could not access 504 plans. After this conversation I did my own research and found that the accommodations I needed are technically available under the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the NSDA itself. If tournaments are legally required to grant accommodations, why do  coaches like mine believe they are not offered? Do we have them or not? If we do, why are they so difficult to access? How does the process actually work and what are tournaments required to provide? Why is there no guidance for finding any of this out? 

I, after reading multiple legal documents, still have no idea.

That is the issue, there is no real answer. Despite being legally required to provide these accommodations, there is no guidance for how to get them or information about applying that is not hidden inside legal jargon. I need the accommodations and it should be easy to get, simply show my 504 plan and receive it. The only information I could find was the application for accommodations for NSDA Nationals, which I had to discover completely on my own, and can only be done by coaches online and only applies to NSDAs.  How can a student apply for accommodation if they cannot access the application and how can a coach apply if they can;t access the necessary documentations (504 plans)? The more I dug the more confusing and flawed the system seemed.

This doesn't even go into the Catholic Forensics League which has nothing about accommodations at all! While NCFL is not participated in, or even known, by every school, it is by mine. The fact that the league has no information whatsoever means they likely have nothing, even though legally they must. This adds further to the confusion as the same issues are present, and there is even less guidance towards the process. The same questions can be asked: Where do I go to get access to my accommodations? Where do I start the process? If there  is no link, do I have to email the information? What’s the deal?

Ideally, everyone who needs accommodations will get them, and they can start their prep time slightly earlier. Overall, there will not be a big disruption to the flow of rounds, just people with accommodations start their prep slightly before the others. It really is that simple.

Not everyone will agree with the idea that some people should start their time earlier. I spoke about this to a friend of mine, and he told me that extra time is an advantage, whether it is from a 504 or not. While extra time is an advantage, when a student needs it, it is more “evening the odds”. In my own experience with ADHD,  my mind often wanders, and I space out. I eventually snap out of it, but I still lose minutes every time and that stacks up quickly. With extra time on assessments, I still do space out and lose time but it is made up for with that added time. Essentially if everyone gets 50 minutes for a test and I space out for 10, I only really get 40. But if I technically get 60 and space out for that 10, I get 50 minutes just like everyone else. This greatly aids me in my academic career, and I would not perform as well without it. When I tried extemp I did not have these and I believe I could have performed better with it. This is not an issue I can fix on my own, which is why these accommodations exist and why they need to extend to speech and debate.

What are the solutions?


It really is that simple; if the road to getting them is clear, then people can get the accommodations thy need. Make sure coaches are aware of the process and are prepared to help students navigate it. Let students know that if they have a 504 plan they are entitled to accommodations. It is not a hard issue to fix, but only if it is brought to the attention of those who can help.

It is also important to advocate for these accommodations and speak on the issue. Whether you get them or not, speak up for the people who do as they need them. Speaking to coaches and other students on the issue can spread awareness of the issue that seems to be overlooked by everyone.

I have spoken to my coach, who is going to talk about the issue to NJSDL directly. Just that one conversation has sparked progress, and the more people who do the same the more we can see happen. I also spoke to my friends about it and they were shocked at the injustice of the situation. They never knew about it before and now can speak for it in the future. Speaking to students and coaches alike can inspire change and reform in this process and that means you can make a difference too. So use your voice and speak up for the people around you. Speak up for evening the playing field and speak up for greater access to accommodations in the speech and debate space.