Frequently Asked Questions From Educators
Q. What is a reasonable accommodation?
A. “ accommodations” is a term coined from disability and employment
legislation, and it refers to any modifications that need to made for a person
or within an environment to minimize the discriminatory effect of a person’s
physical, emotional, or learning disability. “” means the provision of the
adjustment should not cause undue burden on the setting or the institution. In
academia, reasonable accommodations are called academic adjustments, and they
might include classroom adjustments, exam modifications, or administrative
Individual academic adjustments are not specifically mandated by law; the
idea is that the adjustment match the individual need of the student and does
not change the essential requirements of the role of student. The student should
be able to perform in the role of a student with or without the adjustment; the
adjustment should have the effect of reducing the handicapping effect of the
disability in the academic environment. The goal of reasonable accommodations
and academic adjustments has been referred to as “ the playing field” for people
with disabilities. For a person with physical disability, this might mean having
a translator or allowing seeing eye dogs in a classroom. For a student with a
psychiatric disability, it might mean taping lectures, having beverages in
class, or having an exam proctored.
Q. How do I know if a student really has a disability?
A. In most cases, students who are requesting accommodations are receiving
services from the disability services or counseling office on campus. These
offices require a letter documenting the specific disability from the student’s
medical doctor. Unless the student discloses his or her specific disability to
you, as an instructor are not entitled to the specifics of this information. If
a student is requesting an adjustment from you, s/he should present you with
verification from the Disability Services Office stating that s/he indeed
qualifies for academic adjustments.
Q. How do I know when I am providing “ accommodations” or when I am over
accommodating or going too far?
A. A basic rule of thumb is that the student should be able to meet the core
requirements of the course without adjustment. You should not change the
curriculum for the course or modify assignments to the degree that they alter
the core requirements. For example, changes in test formats or giving extended
time or advanced notice to a student would not be altering the requirement of
learning course material, and therefore are within reason. If you feel
uncomfortable with an adjustment request, discuss it with the Disability
Services Office or the Section 504 officer at your institution.
Q. How do I set limits or tell a student they are performing poorly in the
class without upsetting the person or violating the law?
A. You should treat a student with a disability as you would any of your
students. Follow your normal procedures for a student who is doing poorly in
class. Make sure that your specific performance expectations are clearly
delineated and communicated, and then track the student's performance,
documenting each step.
Q. Do I have to create an academic adjustment for the student or do they
have to request it?
A. It is the student’s responsibility to request the adjustment. The right to an
academic adjustment is triggered by a letter from the student’s medical doctor
documenting the disability. The exact adjustment is usually arrived at after
discussion and negotiation with you. The adjustment should be such that it
prevents the disability form interfering with the student’s performance and it
should be something that is reasonable for you to provide. For example, a
student might approach you saying that they are having a hard time comprehending
the text and they feel it is due to their inability to process written material.
You might suggest that they get the text on tape, which might alleviate the
Q. Do I need to modify my typical grading process for someone with a
A. Giving a student an academic adjustment should not affect the grading
process. The adjustment might involve altering the form of evaluation; for
example, you might give an exam verbally instead of on paper, our you might
change the format from multiple choice to essay. Otherwise students are required
to meet all academic standards regardless of disability.
Q. If someone cannot do the classwork, no matter what adjustments I
provide, can I give the student a flunking grade?
A. Students with disabilities are required to meet the same academic
requirements that all students are required to meet. If they cannot meet the
standards then you should grade them as you would any other student.
Q. How do I know if an academic adjustment request is unreasonable?
A. The academic adjustment should not create an undue burden on you or the
institution. If you believe an accommodation request is unreasonable, the best
first step is to discuss it with the student and negotiate an acceptable
solution. If you cannot reach an acceptable resolution, the next step is to
discuss the academic adjustment with the Disabilities Office on campus. Every
school is required to have a Section 504 officer on staff who is responsible for
seeing that students with disabilities are not discriminated against because of
their disabilities. If the campus has a Disabilities Services Office, typically
the director is also the Section 504 officer. This officer is also a good
resource for checking out the reasonableness of an academic adjustment request.
Q. Who can I go to for help with all the questions I have?
A. If you have questions around academic adjustments or disabilities you should
go to the office on campus that provides support for students with disabilities.
This may be a the disabilities services office, a counseling office, or it may
just be the Section 504 officer of your school. Other useful resources in the
community include the local Department of Mental Health, community or volunteer
legal advisors, mental health consumer organizations, the
Association for Higher Education and Disability
(AHEAD), or the local chapter of Alliance for the Mentally Ill (AMI). The
Job Accommodation Network also can
assist students and educators in identifying accommodations and other resources
(800-526-7234). See our
Resources section for more information.
Q. Who else in the school can I tell about the student’s disability and
under what circumstances?
A. Students’ rights to privacy and confidentiality regarding information about
their disability is protected under the ADA and Section 504 of the
Rehabilitation Act. The very fact that a student has a disability is
confidential information and therefore can only be shared if the student gives
written permission (in the form of a signed release of information).
Q. How do I deal with the students who resent the ‘special’ treatment of
the student getting the academic adjustments (i.e. a longer time to take tests,
having a different format for the test, being able to take breaks during the
A. One strategy is to explain the concept of “” to your students. A child’s view
of fairness means everybody gets exactly the same treatment and the same amount
of resources; a more adult view of fairness means people get what they need to “
the job done.” You can tell the student that s/he has the right to present
his/her case for a need for accommodation in order to attend the class, but that
documentation would be needed. What must be protected, obviously, is any
information about other students’ disabilities.
Q. Can I tell the other teachers about a student and look to them for
A. No, specific information about students’ disabilities is confidential, and
cannot be shared without a student’s written permission. General information
about psychiatric disability, academic adjustments, and classroom strategies can
be shared, and issues can be discussed provided the student’s anonymity is
absolutely protected. Otherwise, refer to the Disabilities Services Office for
assistance and refer other teachers there as well.
Q. Once a student discloses a psychiatric disability, what kind of
information do I need and how can I get it?
A. In general, you need to know what the present effect of the particular
disability will be on the student’s functioning as a student in your class.
Specifics regarding psychiatric history, diagnosis, and medications are not as
relevant as the specific barriers that they present as the student attempts to
complete the requirements of the class. Most useful is information about:
|what behaviors to expect as a result of the disability or psychotropic
|how these behaviors interfere with the student’s participation and
performance in the class, |
|what useful strategies and/or or academic adjustments that address these
barriers and help him/her to function more effectively in the role of student?
One of the best sources of information is from the student him/herself; s/he
is the best source of expertise about the impact of disability and its effect on
individual functioning. Other sources include again the disabilities services
office, AMI, AHEAD, JAN or mental health information sources at the library or
on the Internet.
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