Case Manager and Editorial Board Member John Caldora helps faculty understand the process that leads to a student obtaining an accommodations letter, as well as what that letter means for the instructor and their classroom.
In most cases, faculty come in at the end of an accommodations process. They often get a letter handed to them by a student, perhaps discreetly left on a podium, detailing what accommodations the Office of Students with Disabilities has authorized the student to receive. Sometimes, they are basic accommodations regarding exam timing; however, they may become more and more complex. Since they are based on the student’s needs, and each student is unique, accommodations can be very wide-ranging. For example, they may include concepts such as notetakers, excused absences, formula sheets, or more. A faculty member may wonder how this list was generated, what it means, and how it came into being. This piece will give faculty a short walkthrough of the academic accommodations process, and the work that went into creating the letter they are now examining. If possible, faculty should try to engage the student to discuss the accommodations requested, and we’ll explore why that’s a good idea, too.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, colleges are required to provide reasonable accommodations to students who provide documentation of a disability. A common misconception is that a student can just walk in and say, “Hi, I have a disability,” and come out with a “golden ticket” to whatever they want authorized by the college. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Each institution has its own requirements for what is considered documentation. In most cases, this information can be found on the website of an institution’s disability services office.
The type of documentation requested also varies depending on the disability. For example, someone who has broken a leg and is in a cast may only require a note from a physician stating how long the cast will be on, limitations on movement, and recommended accommodations. In other cases, such as autism, more documentation is required. Unlike a simple letter from a physician for a broken leg, a student with autism may be asked to provide a diagnosis from a neurologist or mental health professional.
Ideally, a student would have been diagnosed with autism in primary or secondary school and would have received the appropriate testing, paid for by the local school district. This testing is often done by a team of experts to determine the extent of a disability and what accommodations are necessary for the student to succeed in school. This evaluation may include an interview with a mental health professional and testing of cognitive skills. If the evaluation was done in younger years, an interview with parents or classroom observation may have been part of the test. If the student needs to pay for this testing on their own, after secondary school, it could cost thousands of dollars, which is not affordable for all families. Further, these tests would have ideally been updated over the course of the student’s secondary schooling. An autistic student may also have other disabilities as well, such as anxiety or depression and require a note from a mental health professional regarding that.
This documentation is presented to the staff at the institution’s disability office. They are trained in reviewing the documentation provided. They will verify the authenticity of the documentation, then determine what barriers a student may need assistance with. This is done in collaboration with the student. The goal is not to provide a golden ticket to whatever a student wants. The goal is to provide them with an equitable classroom experience that gives them an equal opportunity to succeed. Another common misconception regarding accommodations is that they provide an “unfair advantage” to students. Instead, such accommodations are meant to provide a level playing field, giving the student the ability to pass or fail on their own merits as opposed to those of their disability. For example, accommodations may help a student with anxiety with extended time for exams. For students who have trouble writing due to motor issues, a word processor may be an acceptable alternative.
Most disability offices have a “menu” of reasonable accommodations to work from. They select what is required to assist with a specific student’s disability from that menu. For example, a student with ADD may need extended time to complete an exam. A student with diabetes or cancer may need flexibility regarding excused absences for particularly bad days. Autism, as a spectrum, will require different accommodations from this menu for each student. When a student’s needs do not fall on the menu, it is up to the disability office to weigh the needs of the student against the ADA, the school’s academic integrity, and the need of the faculty. Then, they will determine the best path moving forward. Having a menu of reasonable accommodations to work from allows institutions to standardize their procedures and ensure fair treatment of all students that come to the office.
All accommodations must be reasonable. There are limits. Sometimes, students, or their parents, will attempt to request an unreasonable accommodation. If a requested accommodation affects the academic integrity of the course or places an undue burden on the university, those are unreasonable accommodations. Such unreasonable accommodations may be a personal aide in class, funded by the university. Another example might be a formula sheet that compromises the integrity of an exam by providing answers on the sheet. A third example would be reducing the difficulty of an exam by reducing multiple choice question options. In such cases, it is up to the disability office to deny the accommodations, after considering federal law and the institution’s academic policies.
In the end, a letter clarifying the student’s accommodations is given to the student to distribute to their professors. Usually, students need to request this letter from a disability office every semester. Most students just discreetly hand this letter to their professor without any further dialogue on the issue; however, the process is supposed to be collaborative in nature.
Ideally, a student would meet with a faculty member during office hours, discuss their needs with the instructor, and develop a plan for the class. This is especially important for accommodations such as excused absences or extended due dates, which require extensive negotiation between the instructor and the student, as these accommodations will look very different in different types of classes. Unfortunately, given the stigma of disability and a lack of self-advocacy in younger college students, this conversation usually doesn’t take place. Depending on the class size and institution, it may be appropriate for an instructor to start that conversation. Questions regarding the accommodations should be referred to the student or the Disability Services Office. While the office cannot disclose a student’s disability, they can help with navigating classroom-specific issues on accommodations. Once the accommodations are given for a course, then they will be used in the classroom, in exams, and in assignments.
In the next piece on this issue, I’ll be discussing what accommodations look like in the classroom, in testing, and what issues may arise when accommodations are not followed properly. If you have questions you’d like addressed, please leave them in the comments below.