This article is designed to provide students and parents with a general understanding of the college disability accommodations process and the requirements for establishing eligibility for disability services.
Every college and university has a disability services department that provides accommodations and services to students with disabilities. Yet many students don’t know the departments exist, and even when they do, they don’t know if they’re eligible for services.
What is a disability?
The first step in understanding the high education accommodations process is understanding what constitutes a disability. A person with a disability is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act as: “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” Without a disability, you generally cannot receive accommodations through disability services.
However, I have successfully advocated for accommodations for PLNE (Primary Language Not English) students through this department. That student had a language acquisition issue and she needed extra time to take tests because her English processing speed was slow.
What are reasonable accommodations?
A need for extra time, for a qualifying student with a disability, is a reasonable accommodation. So, what is a reasonable accommodation in higher education?
A reasonable accommodation is an adjustment made to make fair an individual’s access to education based on a proven physical, mental or emotional, or learning need as mandated by the ADA.
The University of Maryland School of Nursing defines the intent of reasonable accommodations as: “to provide equal access or improve accessibility to physical, programmatic, and academic areas of the University.”
Below are some of the most common types of accommodations in higher education:
Extended Testing Time — 50% or 100% extra time to take exams. This can be offered either in a Disability Services testing room, or sometimes via a separate exam proctored by your professor, depending on your additional accommodation needs.
Private, Distraction-Free Room for Exams – Rather than testing with the entire class, students that are easily distracted and lose focus may request a private room.
Anonymous Note-taker — Disability Services will ask faculty to announce to your class if anyone would be interested in making duplicate copies of their class notes for you. This can be done anonymously at the student’s choosing.
Scribes— For students with handwriting and language processing issues, especially those who had similar services in K-12.
Alternative E-text— Some students may require textbooks in an alternate format that can be used in conjunction with text or speech software.
Kurzweil 3000 — Text to speech software that reads text to students with language processing and other reading issues.
Use of Recorder— For students with memory, retention, or notetaking challenges, use of tape player or recorder may be permitted so that class lectures can be played back while studying.
Assistive Listening Device— For students that are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, this device amplifies the instructor’s voice through use of a microphone attached to the instructor and to a receiver the student wears.
Absences & Tardies— consideration for absences or tardies may be requested, especially for students with attention, hyperactivity and mental health challenges.
You don’t get what you don’t register for — the process starts with you.
Frostburg State is a public Maryland university that has extensive resources about their disability services for students. The school, like all other Maryland colleges and universities, indicates that self advocacy is necessary for the process to begin. Once you take the first steps, disability services can start working for you:
DSS will advocate on the student’s behalf after a student has taken the appropriate actions if intervention is necessary. DSS also works with students through counseling and role playing on how to approach faculty and discuss their disability and needs.
While many schools allow advocates to participate in the process and allow advocates to be present at the intake meeting, some do not.
So, it is best for the student to be prepared for the questions he or she will be asked by Disability Services in the process.
Get comfortable talking about your learning, physical, and mental health challenges.
Disability Services serves enrolled students with documented disabilities at both the undergraduate and graduate level of every school in Maryland. Disabilities that are served include, but are not limited to:
chronic health issues
mental health disorders
The departments wouldn’t exist if there weren’t students with disabilities at each school– so you are not alone in make a request for accommodations!
The offices also work with students with some temporary impairments, as appropriate.
Students are encouraged to register with DSS as soon as possible after admission to the university to ensure timely provision of services.
Accommodations are not retroactive, though. This means that the accommodations begin only once they are approved, and cannot be used to retake exams.
Accommodations must be supported by a qualified professional.
Documentation of your disability can come from your own personal statement as well as from the diagnosis and evaluation of a qualified professional.
A qualified professional is a doctor or therapist or other medical provider who is licensed or otherwise properly credentialed, and who possesses expertise in the disability for which the student’s modifications or accommodations are sought.
Students must have a diagnosis and an evaluation from a qualified professional in order to complete their accommodations request.
You must have a current functional limitation.
Documentation of your disability needs to be up-to-date, so you will need to have been evaluated by an appropriate, qualified professional often within three years or requesting services.
However, some schools will provide temporary accommodations while updated documentation is pending.
The University of Southern Maryland even provides a database of local psychologists who can complete neurocognitive evaluations and assessments in the event that updated documentation is needed.
Even if a disability has existed since birth, documentation for Maryland schools must include information on how the disability currently impacts the individual. A combination of the results of formal evaluations, clinical notes, and the student’s personal statement is considered.
Documentation should be thorough enough to demonstrate whether and how a major education-based activity is substantially limited.
Only the severity, frequency, and pervasiveness of the disability at present will be considered– not how you experienced it a few years ago. If your last evaluation was completed by your medical provider three years ago, you may need an updated one. This “current documentation” requirement also means that past accommodations and accommodations at other institutions won’t “transfer”.
So, if you are a qualified student with a current disability, reach out to your the Disability Services department at your school, or the school to which you are applying. Each school offers their own set of accommodations and their own support staff to guide students through their process, so familiarize yourself with your options as early in your college career as you can.