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 be made for a person or within an environment to minimize the discriminatory effect of a person’s physical, emotional, or learning disability. 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 accommodations.

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 “leveling the playing field” for people with disabilities. 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, he or she 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 problem.

Q. Do I need to modify my typical grading process for someone with a psychiatric disability?
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, or you might change the format from multiple choice to an 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 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).

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 are 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 class)?
A. One strategy is to explain the concept of “reasonable accommodation” to your students. An adult view of fairness means people get what they need to “the job done.” You can tell the student that he or she has the right to present his or 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 suggestions?
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 medication;
  • 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; he or she 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.

NOTE: The information contained in these pages is for educational purposes only, and is not legal advice. Individuals should contact the appropriate legal resources for specific legal advice regarding their particular situations.