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A College Student's Guide to Disability Accommodations

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It’s that time of year again!  Summer is winding down and school is just around the corner. Going to college can be one of the most exciting and exhilarating times of your life. You are about to embark on a journey towards a career and becoming the person you have dreamed about since you were a small child. College can also be downright terrifying, leaving you with intense anxiety and endless questions about how you are going to make this work.

In truth, this is how most of the students I work with feel when they come in to see me. I am a disability counselor at a college and my primary role is to work with students who have disabilities and develop accommodations for them so they can be successful.  Every semester I meet new people who are determined to achieve their goals. These students are resilient, brave and smart, but it can be very overwhelming trying to find the support they need. I hope this post can be a guide for those of you who are just starting out as freshmen, parents of a college student, or maybe you are like me and just finding out later in your college career that you may learn a different way. Whatever the situation may be, I hope this helps you navigate Disability Services at your college and helps you become an awesome advocate for yourself.

Who Is Eligible for Accommodations?

Many people think accommodations are only for people with visible disabilities, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  About 95 percent of the students I serve have an invisible illness, a learning disability or mental illness such as anxiety or depression.

What Are Accommodations and How Can They Help Me?

Accommodations are adjustments that make material or a process more accessible to a person.  Accessible means the person with the disability has the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective manner (Department of Justice).  Think about cut-outs in the sidewalk or captions for a movie.  These are all accommodations to make the environment accessible. In fact, they help more than just people with disabilities. Those sidewalks are helpful for moms with strollers, movers and people with rolling suitcases. Captions are helpful for people who are deaf or  hard-of-hearing, but they also help those who may not know the language well, and people who learn better by reading and hearing the information at the same time.

Accommodations are helpful to students who have disabilities to help them with barriers to their learning. They can help with endless reading textbook sessions with dyslexia, reducing distractions for ADHD, providing preferential seating for ASD and excused absences for flares of a chronic illness — just to name a few.

Examples of Academic Accommodations in College

Every college will have their own way of writing accommodations, but this is just a list of general accommodations.

  • Extended test taking time
  • Having a note taker
  • Recording a lecture class
  • Having preferred seating
  • Being able to take short breaks during lecture to alleviate symptoms
  • Testing in a reduced distraction site (testing center)
  • Having a Reader or utilizing screen reading software for tests
  • Allowing extra time to get to class (for mobility)
  • Having an accommodation for absences due to documented disability (such as chronic illness)
  • Extensions on assignments
  • Having handouts in electronic format, or enlarged text size
  • Eligibility for subscriptions for Audio text books
  • ASL interpreter for classes & tutoring
  • No penalty for in class spelling errors
  • Extended time on assignments when student communicates need to instructor
  • Using adaptive technology (screen readers, smart pens, braille printer)
  • Testing in smaller sections (e.g. Part I in the morning, Part II in the afternoon)

What the Law Says

The Americans With Disabilities Act was established so no person with a disability would be discriminated against. It states that reasonable accommodations must be made for any individual with a disability. You can read the law here (warning: it’s rather lengthy) but here are key tips you need to know!

  • The Law (the ADA) protects anyone who has a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” This covers physical, sensory and health-related disabilities, psychological disorders or attention disorders and learning disabilities.
  • Reasonable accommodations must be made, but colleges don’t have to fundamentally alter programs or reduce academic standards for any student.
  • The appropriate accommodations will be determined based on your disability and individual needs.
  • It is the student’s responsibility to inform the college of disability.

How to get started:

  1. The first thing you will need to do is visit your college’s website and search for the Disability Office. You can also search ADA, Accommodations or Student Support and this will lead you to the right place.
  2. Once you find the correct office, they will have their process on their web page. They may have an application to fill out or an individual you will call to make an intake appointment. These appointments are generally done after you have made your class schedule with an advisor.
  3. You will need documentation for your disability and it should not be more than three years old. Colleges will generally not accept IEPs from high school, and would like to see updated psychological testing with adult norms. This allows them (and you!) to have a better idea of what your strengths and weaknesses are and the best way for you to learn. If you don’t have documentation or updated testing, contact the disability office to see if they have recommendations for your area. Documentation will be accepted from medical providers such as doctors, counselors and psychologists. This documentation must highlight the following:
    1. What is the disability or disabilities?
    2. How does the disability affect the educational process? For example, having flares in chronic illness may cause someone to miss class, whereas having ADHD may affect time needed to take a test.
    3. What recommendations does the medical professional have for accommodations? This may not always be reasonable depending on the class, but it will give the counselor an idea of what may help.
  4. Before your intake appointment, think about which accommodations have helped you in the past. Also revisit what your academic strengths are and how you believe you learn the best, such as hands on, auditory or visual. This will be helpful information to the counselor and will be crucial information to know as you begin to advocate for yourself.
  5. Make an appointment with the disability counselor and bring a copy of your most recent documentation. The counselor will review the documentation and ask questions about how your disability impacts your learning. The information you provide is confidential and will stay in the disability counselor’s office. Your accommodation letter will not have your diagnosis or medical condition listed. It will only state the accommodations for which you are eligible.
  6. After speaking with the disability counselor, you will most likely receive your accommodation within two weeks. You are then responsible for notifying your professors.
  7. Make an appointment with your professor(s) to talk about the accommodations you will need. Make sure to bring a copy of the accommodation letter for your professor to keep.
    1. This can be intimidating, but it will be helpful for your professor to understand the best way you learn and how they can support you. You do not have to disclose the specific disability diagnosis. You can speak generally about support you will need, but keep in mind if you choose to disclose more detail, it may help the professor to provide extra help.
    2. Meet with your professor as soon as possible as any accommodations cannot be retroactive, meaning you cannot go back on a test you didn’t do well on without accommodations. They can only help you from this point forward.
    3. The accommodations are between you and the professor. Other students in the class should not know that you have accommodations. Many of the students I work with are anxious about feeling different from their peers and being called out because of their disability. College is a lot different than high school. You won’t be asked to line up at the door to go to the testing center, and can even be anonymous with having a note taker.
  8. Keeping up with responsibilities. Remember you are your own advocate now!
    1. In college, your parents are not able to contact professors or other personnel with questions about you or to check in.  Because of FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) your information will not be shared.
    2. If you have testing accommodations, you may want to remind the professor two days prior to the test. Sometimes they have many students who are receiving accommodations, and a reminder will help guarantee that the test will be ready with your accommodations.
    3. If your accommodations are not working, contact your disability counselor to revise your accommodations. They are not set in stone, and your counselor may be able to help you identify helpful resources around the college.
  9. If at any time you feel that your accommodations are not being met, let your disability counselor know. They may need to meet with the professor to ensure you are receiving the appropriate accommodations. One of the most important roles of the disability counselor is to make sure the college is in compliance with the ADA. If you still do not feel you have been treated fairly, you can contact the Office of Civil Rights and file a complaint,  because this is against the law.

Accommodations are just a way of leveling the playing field. Students with disabilities have more barriers to learning than those without disabilities. It is not a personal or character flaw. There is nothing wrong with you, you just learn differently! I hate when students wait to come see me until they start failing because they feel embarrassed or they feel there is a stigma around using disability services. The process in college is very private, and it is done to help you succeed.

If you think that you may have a learning disability but have not been diagnosed, contact your disability counselor to see how you can get help.  Personally, I did not discover my own diagnosis until I was in graduate school I always wondered why I couldn’t remember what I read and had trouble studying. After finding out, I was able to find ways that I could retain information and other strategies which helped me pull a very low GPA to a very high GPA. It was the best decision I ever made! The knowledge can only help you, not hinder you — so what are you waiting for?

It’s time to be the best you that you can be!

Have you had experience with academic accommodations? Please comment on how they have helped you along the way. I would love to hear from you!

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Thinkstock image by slpu9945.

Originally published: July 30, 2017
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