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Priority Registration for Disabled Students Is Not a 'Perk'

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It is typical for universities to stagger the start dates for course registration, with priority registration being on the first day, followed by seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen and open registration. Registration dates may be staggered by a full week for each level, but the exact time may vary per university. Matriculated students can typically register for classes before students with fewer credit hours.

Regardless of the number of credit hours, priority registration is a common academic accommodation that allows disabled college students to register at the earliest possible date. Other students may also receive priority registration, such as veterans. As a disabled undergraduate, priority registration was a vital disability accommodation for my academic success and symptom management.

I live with borderline personality disorder (BPD), clinical depression, a genetic condition called amelogenesis imperfecta, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), two blood disorders, auditory processing disorder, recurring multiple organ system infections and minor hearing loss. I also have the combined experience of a psychology and disability studies graduate, teaching assistant and previous disability services student assistant.

Unfortunately, access to this accommodation is not always received well by other students or even people I thought were my friends.

When trying to discuss my class schedule like everyone else, it has twice attracted spiteful comments or ableist jokes. Someone said, “Wait, why do you get to know your exact schedule already?” to which I responded by simply stating disabled students had access to early registration. Sometimes it would slip my mind that no one else knew their schedule already.

Disabled students may deal with comments such as:

“That’s not fair.”

“Wow, I wish I were disabled!”

“I still don’t get why disabled students get to register first. Everyone should be able to.”

There appears to be a lack of critical thought or consideration for the reason this accommodation exists in the first place.

Federal laws such as the Americans With Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provide post-secondary students with protection against discrimination and exclusion and access to reasonable modifications. These include reasonable modifications to certain policies and procedures (e.g., testing time or registration dates), services (e.g., interpreters) and adjustments to the environment that pose barriers for disabled students.

Some universities automatically offer the priority registration accommodation for all students registered with disability services, given the broad and complex reasons a disabled student may need it. Other universities provide it on an individual basis.

Although non-disabled people who have never had to recognize or envision the need for these services may think of priority registration as an “inconvenience” or as a “perk” or “favor” for disabled students, it is really a socially and medically necessary adjustment.

The following is a list of some reasons it is important for a disabled student to receive priority registration:

  • D/deaf and Hard of Hearing: To secure room for an interpreter or ensure materials are captioned in a timely manner.
  • Visual disability, learning disability or developmental disability: To secure alternate text or material (e.g., Braille) in a timely manner.
  • Mobility disability: To have the first pick for classes in an accessible location (e.g., elevators or ramps) and that are not spaced too far apart.
  • Chronic illnesses/pain or other disabilities: Some conditions and disabilities are unpredictable or may impact health, speed, energy, endurance and/or stamina. In addition to accessible locations, this may mean the students need first pick for courses with a virtual format, that are grouped together for certain times of the day and on only certain days of the week, later start times, time for breaks in between, or with flexibility for a medication or treatment regimen.
  • Psychological Disability/Mental Illness: All of the above reasons apply.
  • Disabilities that impact driving (e.g., epilepsy): Some students may need to follow a certain bus schedule or the schedule of a friend or family member who drives them, so their available times are more limited.
  • Students who use note-taking services: Students with any of the above combinations of disabilities may receive note-taking services due to motor skills, hearing, vision or processing disabilities. The course will need to have room for a student note-taker.

This list is not intended to be all-encompassing.

Priority registration can mean the difference between a flare-up of symptoms, a hospitalization, a failing grade or two instead of eight hours of studying in a single day to play catch up in an inaccessible course. It can make a difference in graduation and registration rates. It provides adequate lead time to locate and secure accommodations, services or scheduling.

If you happen to encounter disabled students who receive priority registration (or any disability accommodation), remember the potential reasons and the importance of these supports for them to have equal access to education. Refrain from and correct harmful and invasive comments and perceptions.

If you are a disabled student, here are some considerations when arranging your schedule:

  • The location of the course
  • The student facilities, dining, vending machines and bathrooms that are nearby
  • The time the course meets, how often it meets and which days of the week
  • The need for back to back classes or the need to schedule classes with time in-between
  • A course load that balances the difficulty of the material
  • The formatting of the material and assignments and alternative assignments
  • The reasonability of the workload
  • The rules of the course (e.g., “No technology classrooms” with disabled students as the exception may disclose you to the class or subject you to comments from other students.)
  • Consider asking for the syllabus ahead of time to preplan, schedule and check the course formatting and design.
    • It is a red flag if a professor refuses to answer your questions or let you see any version of a syllabus, including previous versions or at least a tentative or rough outline if it is incomplete.

For more information on disability accommodations, see the following articles from The Mighty contributors:

Getty image by Jacob Ammentorp Lund.

Originally published: September 24, 2020
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