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The Inside Scoop on Getting College Accommodations

A disability services professional gives you and your student the best tips for succeeding.

As a higher education professional working in disability services, I’ve counseled many students with disabilities and their families. I’ve learned that the earlier our students know the process of receiving accommodations in college, the smoother their overall transition to college. Know that you and are your student are not alone. Here‘s what your student can expect in college, and how it may be different than what he or she has experienced in high school.

What does the law say?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees high school students a free and appropriate public education, regardless of ability. The laws governing accommodations in higher education, namely the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), do not make that guarantee. These two laws prohibit discrimination based on disability and guarantee equal access to educational opportunities. In short, IDEA guarantees an education, while ADA and Section 504 just guarantee an equal opportunity to pursue an education. Why does this matter? Because the purpose of these legal protections dictates the scope of assistance that may be available to your student at each level.

What is a disability?

Colleges generally use the ADA definition of disability, which includes any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. College students with ADHD and LD often report not realizing that they may qualify for services as a person with a disability. I’ve met many students for the first time in their sophomore, junior, and even senior years, because they didn’t know our office could assist them. We’re so happy to see them when they find their way to us, but we’re also a little sad at the missed opportunity to assist them earlier in their college careers.

How are accommodations determined in college?

Accommodations are typically based on three things: the presence of a disability; the impact of the disability in the academic setting; and what accommodations are needed to ensure equitable access to all educational programs and services at the institution.

Every college must have someone responsible for ensuring compliance with the ADA/Section 504, and the law requires colleges to engage students in an interactive process to determine appropriate accommodations. That means the disability services office should have a conversation with your student about what he or she needs. Even though you may be sitting in on this meeting, help your student be prepared to speak for himself. Make sure your student can explain how ADHD or LD affects him or her in the classroom and what accommodations were received in high school. The information will help the disability services office work with your student to develop an accommodation plan based on his or her specific needs.

[Free Guide to Securing ADHD Accommodations in College]

It’s important to understand that accommodations aren’t approved because the student requests them. The laws governing accommodations in higher education allow institutions to deny an accommodation that would fundamentally alter an essential purpose or function of the course or program. For example, an accommodation to have an alternative assignment to speeches would not likely be approved for a public speaking course. If a requested accommodation is not approved, a disability services professional should work with your student to explore alternative accommodations. No matter what, there should always be a process in place for a student to appeal an accommodation decision, so encourage your student to pursue that path if he or she does not agree with, or understand, a decision.

What documentation do you need to provide?

The standards for documentation of disability in college have shifted over the last several years. Based on updates to the ADA, and subsequent legal rulings, policies have become more progressive.  Requirements that are strict and limiting in nature are making way for policies that recognize documentation as just one source of valuable information. In addition to the information your student shares, documentation may be requested to verify the presence of a disability, how it impacts your student, and any recommended accommodations.  Requested documentation may include a letter from a doctor, a psychoeducational evaluation, an IEP from the high school, or other forms of information.

Documentation is used together with your student’s insight into his or her needs and the professional judgment of the disability services professional. Documentation is no longer the be-all, end-all of accommodation decisions in college. The important thing to know is that your student should talk with the disability services office to start the process. In other words, do not wait until the documentation you think you need is in order and in hand. After talking with your student, the disability services professional should be able to let your student know what documentation is needed.

What is my student’s role in the process?

Your student will be expected to drive the process of receiving accommodations in college. He or she must initiate contact with the disability services office, set up an appointment to meet, and notify professors and request accommodations when your student would like to use them. You cannot do these things for your student, but you may contact the disability services office for guidance if your student has provided the office with written consent—commonly called a FERPA agreement.

[Take the Lead on College Accommodations]

Professors are typically notified of needed accommodations by letter each semester, at your student’s request, but they are not given information about why your student receives accommodations. The processes your student must engage in to receive accommodations are not usually cumbersome, but there may still be a learning curve. Above all, encourage your student to reach out to the disability services office if help is needed. I’ve talked to many, many students who regret not doing so until their grades started to suffer for lack of accommodations.

When should you make all this happen?

Don’t hesitate to help your student contact the disability services office of any college he or she is considering attending before making the decision about where to attend. Ask questions, learn about what they offer, and get up to speed on how their processes works. You are looking for a place with a welcoming attitude and people who genuinely love to help students succeed!

Once admitted, I recommend that students have their meeting with the disability services office the summer before entering college, and then meet with them again around the beginning of classes. The first meeting will allow your student to learn the basics and make accommodations official well in advance of the start of classes. The second one provides a chance to check in and be sure your student know how to request and use accommodations at the time classes are beginning.

College students have a lot on their minds when they first start college, and accommodations are not usually high on the list. Starting early and having a plan in place will help your student easily transition into using accommodations. Regardless, we’ll be here for your student whenever he or she is ready!