The curse of perfect attendance: how ableism is inherent to attendance policies

By Lucy Wimmer
Contributing Writer

My elementary school had an assembly at the end of the year in which they handed out “Perfect Attendance” ribbons to everyone who made it to class every day. I always sat with my fingers crossed, hoping they’d forgotten about the month of school I had inevitably missed. Of course, schools don’t just “forget” about the class you missed, and I’d always leave that assembly feeling down.

Never once in my career, elementary school through my senior year of college, have I made a semester without missing at least one day of class. This is not for the lack of wanting to be in school — I’ve loved school since before I even started school. But for someone with chronic illness, missing school has always been part of my educational experience.

The most common attendance policy I’ve had throughout my time at Sewanee has been something along the lines of: you have two unexcused absences, no questions asked. After that, points will be deducted for every class you miss. This policy seemed fair enough. It never registered as a disadvantage until the second semester of my senior year.

Never did I realize that other people didn’t have to save their unexcused absence days in case they went to the hospital, nor did they have to consider how much of their personal life to include in an email about missing class. I never thought about the fact that I am predestined for lower grades because I will always use more than my allotted unexcused absences. 

I understand the desire for an attendance policy. Lecture classes are chock-full of information and it’s hard to recover from missing even an hour. Seminar classes depend on participation and it is vital for students to be present in order to voice their opinions. But my theory is this: if a student wants to go to class, they will go to class. It isn’t our professor’s responsibility to get us to class, and a grade-based attendance policy not only threatens students who need to miss class, but also punishes students for making their own decisions. 

We are all adults here, and we should have the capacity to make our own educational decisions. I think generally, Sewanee students care about their education. Sure, people sleep through class or don’t show up so they can nurse a hangover. But at this point, shouldn’t they be able to make that decision themselves? And who is to be the judge on what a legitimate versus an illegitimate reason for skipping class looks like? 

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve slept through class before. I’ve skipped a class in order to finish work for a different class, and once I even skipped because it was too nice of a day to be inside. I’ve also missed class for hospital visits or because I’m too sick to open my eyes. 

Sometimes if I can’t make it for medical reasons, I’ll briefly explain my situation in an email. The part of me that longs for professorial validation doesn’t want professors to get the wrong idea. But at the same time, my illness isn’t a household name; it’s rare and hard to explain. While I want my professors to understand, I also don’t want to have to explain my complicated medical history in order to be seen as someone who cares about her schoolwork. 

Attendance policies can place students between a rock and a hard place: going to class when they are unfit to, or explaining things they feel uncomfortable explaining. These policies privilege “healthy” people and those with “uncomplicated” personal lives. They don’t take into account the fact that everyone is going through something we know nothing about. Class is the reason we came to college, but it’s not the only thing going on. And especially in a remote place, where mental and physical health resources are hard to come by, we are compromising ourselves, and sometimes others, to go to class when we really shouldn’t. 

At this point, I have come to terms with the fact that I will never have a “Perfect Attendance” ribbon to brag about. I have learned how to deal with an education riddled with sick days, and figured out how to best approach this aspect of my life. However, an attendance policy based on grades is not a fair way of evaluating a student’s interest and involvement in class.