Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act requires that we provide reasonable accommodations to students who have identified themselves as disabled and have documented their disability.
How many students at the University have physical or learning disabilities?
Last year the disability support services (DSS) office had contact from more than 100 students, mostly from the Women’s College.
What kinds of disabilities do our students have?
There is a wide variety of types and severity of disabilities among our student population. Some students require physical accommodations, such as handicapped parking spaces or desks that will work with a wheelchair. Other students have learning disabilities such as dyslexia, ADHD, math or language learning challenges, memory problems, chronic psychiatric conditions, executive function problems, written language challenges, etc.
What exactly are learning disabilities? How are they defined?
People have many different kinds of cognitive abilities. Someone who has a learning disability has at least an average IQ overall, but there are significant gaps in specific cognitive development.
A learning disability is a neurological condition. It is important to keep in mind that no amount of effort or strength of character can correct a neurological deficit. This type of condition tends to be life-long, and individuals with learning disabilities have to focus their efforts on developing coping skills to compensate for these gaps in their abilities.
One way of defining a learning disability is that a specific academic achievement level is two standard deviations below the mean for people of the same age. Because college students are often one standard deviation above the mean of the general population, this can be a huge gap for someone with a learning disability who is being compared to typical college students.
What are the signs that a student may have a learning disability that has never been diagnosed before?
Often professors will observe a big difference in the student’s overall appearance of brightness and the quality of their work, especially when it appears that the student is putting in an enormous amount of time and effort. Students may seem as if they have a sort of “mental block” for certain kinds of material, yet be able to speak articulately about many other topics.
It may help to ask if they’ve struggled with this subject before, or if anyone has ever wondered if they might have a learning challenge. Please recommend that they contact the DSS office to discuss it.
What are the privacy laws regarding communications about learning disabilities?
Disability issues are covered by FERPA, and when medical records are involved, they are also covered by HIPPA. It is important to show sensitivity and discretion when communicating about these issues.
Please speak to students privately about any concerns you may have regarding disability issues. When students sign an accommodations form, there is a release that allows the DSS office to talk to you about the student’s needs. If a student has not signed this release, the DSS office will not be able to answer specific questions about this individual.
We can always talk about disabilities and accommodations in general.
How do I know if a student has a documented disability?
If they have identified themselves to the DSS office and have provided a copy of an assessment by an appropriately trained provider (e.g. medical doctor or licensed psychologist, depending on the type of disability), they will bring you an accommodations form from the DSS office. Students should be encouraged to identify themselves to their teachers as soon as possible if accommodations are required.
How are the accommodations decided?
Recommendations for accommodations are developed from the assessment reports that document the disability.
What is required of the faculty?
Faculty members are required to provide reasonable accommodations to students with documented disabilities who present them with the accommodations form from the DSS office.
Some examples of common accommodations include:
- Extended time for exams
- Testing in a quiet environment
- Use of a note-taker or tape-recorder in class
- Use of a laptop
- Use of audio textbooks
- Extended due dates for large projects (mutually agreed upon in advance)
- Being provided with written instructions for assignments
- Provision of tutoring services
More specific accommodations may be recommended on a case-by-case basis.
What if I’m uncomfortable with providing a recommended accommodation?
Please feel free to contact the DSS office with concerns. In most cases we can work together to develop a reasonable plan to assist the student.
Please be aware, however, that there is always the possible risk of a student filing a lawsuit for failure to provide an accommodation. When it comes to accommodations, there is no existing resource that defines “reasonable” for every student with every possible permutation of disabilities.
If a complaint should go to court, the professor would need to be able to explain clearly why a recommended accommodation is not “reasonable” in their opinion.
For example, if the professor feels that the accommodation would prohibit a student from fulfilling an essential educational component of the course, the court might find that to be reasonable. In general, a court will look at the possible adverse impact on the student of not providing the accommodation in making its ruling.
Some examples of possible adverse impact include a lowering of the GPA that could lead to loss of scholarships or other financial aid, inability to graduate or emotional distress. Students may also have to spend an excessive amount of time on one course that takes time away from all their other courses, again with the potential to lower the GPA.
What kind of performance is expected of students with disabilities?
Students with disabilities are expected to master the same material as other students in class. Students use their accommodations to achieve this goal.
For example, a student with a disorder of written language may demonstrate mastery of the course material using an oral examination format. For a writing course, however, an oral format would not be a “reasonable” accommodation; but a student might be given extra time and be allowed to use a laptop to access the Spellcheck function.
Am I expected to grade students with disabilities differently than other students?
Students with disabilities are held to the same standards for grading as other students. An exception for this may be the use of extended time or due date accommodations if other students are penalized for lateness. These accommodations are not intended to be a “last-minute excuse,” but are based on a realistic assessment that the disability can be predicted to cause the student to require significantly more time for a given assignment or test.
Students with disabilities should meet with you well in advance to discuss any possible time accommodations; the due date should be agreed upon by both you and the student ahead of time. So although a student may get more time to complete an assignment than other students, they should comply with the mutually agreed upon extended due date and should not be late.
It seems like it's not fair to the other students to treat some individuals differently than others. What is the rationale for this?
Accommodations are similar to the use of a “handicap” in golf. It is a way to level the playing field so that all students have a fair chance of success. If a student needs an accommodation, it does not usually give them an unfair advantage, because the other students don’t really need it.
For example, most professors know about how long students need to complete an examination. Allowing them to just sit there longer would not be likely to significantly improve their scores. But for a student with a learning disability that requires extra time, there could be a dramatic difference in their ability to demonstrate their true level of mastery of the material.
Last year, I had a student who told me she did not have a current assessment on file, but she brought me a temporary accommodations form. What does that mean?
Sometimes students have extensive documentation of IEP plans from their K-12 education. While this is not the same as a thorough assessment, it is significant evidence that there is probably a learning disability present.
The temporary accommodations form is intended to assist the student for the short-term, while allowing her sufficient time to have thorough testing completed.
What if a student needs to be tested for learning disabilities?
If you suspect that a student needs testing, please refer them to the DSS office as soon as possible. Currently, we do not own the expensive testing materials necessary to do assessments here. We have a list of providers who can work with students on nearly any budget to get their assessments done.
A good testing battery typically takes about eight hours to administer, and then about two weeks to interpret the results and generate a report. Many of the lower-cost providers also have a waiting list, so it is not uncommon for a student to need two to three months to get testing done.
Encourage them to be proactive!
What do I do if the student gives me a copy of their assessment report from the doctor?
Most faculty members do not have the appropriate level of training to adequately interpret the technical language of a neuropsychological or medical assessment report. The report is also a medical document covered by the HIPPA laws and is protected information that needs to be stored securely.
The best thing to do is to ask the student to please bring the report to the DSS office as soon as possible and develop an accommodations plan based on the report. The student can then bring you a copy of the accommodations plan with specific recommendations for what you need to do to assist the student.
What do I do if I truly believe a student has a learning disability but they have no documentation, and they just told me as we’re sitting down to take a test?
You may feel sympathy for the student and want to grant them an accommodation on the spot, for example extended time for the test. The problem we run into later is if another student feels that they should also be given special treatment without also having to provide documentation. This leniency could conceivably come up in a lawsuit issue as differential enforcement of our policies.
In that moment however, you will have to use your own judgment. It would be preferable to try to prevent this last-minute stress by announcing to each class early (and repeatedly) that no accommodations will be given unless they have first registered with DSS.
Sometimes students are embarrassed to have a learning disability. They may fear being stigmatized and ridiculed. Students often hope that they won’t need accommodations after all and take a “wait and see” attitude for each course.
It can be helpful for professors to emphasize that communication with DSS is confidential, and that any records of accommodations are maintained separately and are not part of their transcripts. In other words, you can usually assuage their concerns about embarrassment, particularly if your attitude with them is sensitive and discrete.
Someone told me that some students have psychiatric disabilities. What does that mean?
Unfortunately some of our students have come out of terribly traumatizing family experiences that may have included sexual abuse and violence. Some of our students have chronic psychiatric conditions that can have an impact on their academics.
For example, clinical depression, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, and dissociative disorders (like multiple personality) may interfere with a student’s ability to focus in class or to complete assignments quickly.
As with any other disability, students need to register with DSS and document the disability. Students with documented psychiatric disabilities may have accommodations that sound a little unusual.
Please feel free to contact the DSS office if you have questions or concerns about a student’s accommodations. Please also be aware that information on psychiatric conditions is confidential and is protected by privacy laws. Unless the student consents, professors will not be told more than they need to know to ensure reasonable accommodation.