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Working With College Disability Services

How to help your college student access accommodations.

Key points

  • Applying early for college disability services is essential to avoid delays in accommodations.
  • Disability service accommodation requires a diagnosis from a licensed healthcare provider.
  • College students are often responsible for informing faculty and staff of their formal accommodations.

Today I’m talking about college disability services. I’m going over what disability services are, how to sign up and what accommodations are most often requested.

What Disability Services Can Do

Disability services at their most basic level provide accommodations for students with medical or mental health challenges. A student does not have to have a history from high school of using accommodations or have a previous IEP or 504 to access disability services in college. They do have to have a diagnosis provided by a licensed healthcare professional. Though most colleges offer some type of support for students with disabilities, not all have the same quality.

What Disability Services Can’t Do

Disability services do not accept or work with IEPs. They can use those as supportive evidence along with other documentation but not much else since they don’t fall under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Disability services also do not provide modifications. Requesting a modification rather than an accommodation is changing what you learn to be successful in college. Modifications are changes to the curriculum for students with disabilities. For example, an accommodation on a test might be to allow the student more time. A modification to a test would be to change the number of questions the student must complete. Colleges are legally required to provide accommodations but not modifications.

How to Sign Up for Disability Services

  • First of all, start the process before the semester begins whenever possible. Most colleges allow students to start the process immediately after they paid for the semester, received their student ID number and enrolled. It may take longer than students or their parents anticipate so start earlier than you think you need. Some colleges might take up to six weeks to review and agree to provide specific accommodations.
  • To get things rolling, visit the college’s disability services office before classes start. Register with the official disability services office rather than making arrangements with the admissions office, professors or departments. Accommodations received in high school are not guaranteed in college.
  • Next, make sure that your student completes a release of information specific to disability services to speak with parents, therapists or any other stakeholder that can help the process.
  • Most schools will not approve accommodation requests without documentation from a doctor, therapist, or licensed healthcare professional. Students can provide a previous IEP or 504 but they’ll need additional documentation.
  • Most disability services will conduct an assessment and review documentation from previous healthcare providers that have specific insights into the requesting student’s disability.
  • Someone from disability services will provide a formal letter listing all of your accommodations. It’s essential to keep a digital copy so it can easily be emailed.
  • Most disability services centers will not automatically contact students’ professors so it’s essential to reach out to them once you have your accommodations letter. Professors will often have dozens if not hundreds of students so it’s important to regularly remind professors of one’s accommodations before they’re needed.

Common accommodations disability services can provide

  • Sign language interpreters
  • Test-taking accommodations, such as extended time and alternative formats
  • Note-takers
  • Use of assistive technology
  • Provide course substitutions and/or waivers
  • Access to wheelchair ramps and elevators
  • Provide special parking spaces
  • Allow students to use smartphones or tape recorders to record lectures
  • Offer alternate environments like quiet rooms for test-taking or presentations
  • Instructors may allow students to give an oral rather than a written exam
  • Provide assistive listening devices
  • Allow for alternative formats for written tests and study materials like Braille, large print, or audiotape readers
  • Allow the use of spell checkers, dictionaries, or thesauruses for tests that aren't designed to measure spelling skills

What If a Student’s Request for Accommodations Is Denied?

Contact the person at disability services and get a written explanation as to why the requests were denied. There will likely be an appeal process where the student can submit additional information or request changes to the accommodations to make them more reasonable.

This is a good reason why I encourage students to start the disability services process as soon as they can — even before they arrive on campus. There are a ton of students requesting accommodations which means lots of requests and documents to get through each semester. Even if a student had accommodations for a previous semester, I recommend talking with disability services for the upcoming semester to ensure accommodations are in place and make any changes that might be necessary.

What If a Student Has Problems Accessing Accommodations?

What if an elevator isn’t working? What if a professor doesn’t comply or provide accommodations? What if something goes wrong?

The first and best thing to do is for the student to immediately go to the disability services office. It’s straight up against the law for faculty and staff to refuse the use of or provide accommodations formally identified by the disability services office. This doesn’t mean they’ll automatically comply. Students have to practice advocating for themselves. Just because it’s their right to have accommodations doesn’t mean everyone is going to make it easy. With all that being said, it’s also important for the student to not argue with the professor.

In summary, start the application for accommodations early and stay in contact with the representative from the disability services office throughout the semester to ensure any problems that occur can be handled quickly. In my experience, staff at disability services do a fantastic job supporting students, but students have to find their voice and ask for what they need to get through each semester.

Additional Resources

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