Viewing the work of disability services differently



What is current practice?

Institutional requirements specify the type of medical, psychological or psycho-educational documentation that students must present to qualify for accommodations. Some institutions specify individual protocols for a variety of disabling conditions. The disability professional receives and reviews submitted documentation before meeting with the student and makes initial notes on potentially appropriate accommodations. If the documentation doesn’t meet institutional guidelines, students are contacted and told to bring in more information before scheduling a meeting. Once the documentation protocol is satisfied, the student is scheduled for an intake interview with the disability service staff. During the intake, the disability service professional clarifies information contained in the documentation and gathers further information about the disability, functional limitations of the disability, educational experiences, and previous experience with accommodations in order to determine eligibility for services and establish accommodations.

Typical documentation guidelines require:

Specific credentials of the evaluator

  • A diagnostic statement of the existence of a disability
  • A description of the diagnostic methodology used
  • A description of the student’s current functional limitations
  • A discussion of whether the disability is progressive or stable and whether medication is indicated
  • A description of past and/or current accommodations the student has used
  • Recommendations for accommodations or other supports the institution should grant for the student

View Examples

Sample 1: Documentation Guidelines

Students who request services from the disability service office are required to submit documentation under the Americans with Disabilities Act as amended (ADAAA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The diagnosis of a disability alone does not automatically qualify a student for accommodations under these laws. To establish a need for a reasonable accommodation, documentation must indicate that the disability substantially limits one or more major life activities and support requests for services, accommodations, academic adjustments, and/or auxiliary aids.

Since requirements for access in higher education are different than in high school, IEP’s (Individual Educational Plans), 504 Plans, and SOP’s (Summary of Performance) are generally not sufficient to establish student eligibility for services and accommodations.

  1. A Qualified, Licensed Professional Must Conduct the Evaluation

    The report must be presented on practice letterhead, dated and signed by the examiner, and include the license number.

  2. Age of Documentation

    While being diagnosed with a qualified disability under the ADA normally means the condition is life-long, the severity of the condition and its impact in different settings may change over time. Therefore, the evaluation should be no older than three to five years. Disability Support Services reserves the right to request updated or augmented documentation of a condition that is potentially changeable at any time in order to have a more accurate picture of the current level of functioning.

  3. The written report must include the following:

    1. History of personal, social, medical and educational activities
    2. Specific diagnostic statement identifying the disability (ICD-DSM classification). If multiple diagnoses are provided, information on how the primary and secondary conditions affect learning should be described.
    3. Previous history of the disability and verification of any previous testing.
    4. Description of the diagnostic methodology used, including all data from appropriate, standardized, evaluation instruments (names of instruments, scores, test dates and interpretation). Information based on “screening” instruments is not acceptable.
    5. Description of current substantial limitations as they relate to performing various educational tasks, in particular how they relate to the student’s ability to function within a higher education environment academically, socially, emotionally and physically.
    6. Expected progression or stability of the medical condition/disability, including impact of prescribed medications on learning and expected side effects
    7. Recommendations for prescriptive treatments, suggestions for accommodations, including how they are directly linked to the disability and associated issues (e.g., medication) and observations

Additional documentation is required for the following conditions:

  • Asperger’s and Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • Blind and visual Disabilities
  • Chronic Medical Conditions
  • Cognitive Disabilities, including LD, ADD, ADHD, TBI, etc.
  • Deaf and Hard of Hearing
  • Physical and Mobility Disabilities
  • Psychological and Psychiatric Conditions

The aforementioned guidelines are provided so that the disability service office can respond appropriately to the individual needs of the student and determine eligibility for services based on the quality of the submitted documentation. Documentation may need to be updated or augmented in order to be reviewed more fully. Students who submit documentation that does not meet the guidelines will be required to send an updated evaluation before being considered for services and accommodations.

Sample 2: Disability Intake Process

An accurate diagnosis of a student’s problem can facilitate effective accommodation planning and ensure the student meets the institutional eligibility criteria for disability supports. Steps:

  1. Student reviews the institutional documentation guidelines specific to his or her disability.
  2. Student acquires appropriate documentation either from medical or psychoeducational professionals. Required documentation may be available from previous educational institutions or may require an appointment with a certifying professional to update or create required documentation.
  3. Disability resource professional reviews submitted documentation to confirm it meets guidelines and informs students of the need for additional or updated documentation if necessary.
  4. Disability resource professional notes the student’s functional limitations in the academic environment and anticipates accommodations that may be appropriate. Student contacts office to schedule an appointment.
  5. During the intake, the disability resource professional discusses the accommodation requests with the student relative to the student’s specific request for accommodation.
  6. Students receive confirmation of the accommodations they are qualified to receive.
  7. Students are required to attend an orientation session at the disability resource office during which policies and procedures, expectations, and responsibilities are described.
  8. Students obtain an ID letter to deliver to each course instructor once the accommodation plan has been completed by the disability service office.
  9. Students meet with the disability resource professional at the beginning of each semester to discuss additional needs and receive faculty accommodation forms for each class. If there are changes to the disability, updated documentation may be required.

What are the implicit messages?

  • Disabled students are unreliable and not trustworthy. Even when students are able to clearly articulate their experiences and identify accommodations that will be effective, their requests must be legitimized through paperwork and an expert’s interpretation.
  • Disabled students are not valued. Despite the efforts of disability staff to ensure students that they are welcome, the expensive, burdensome criteria that must be met sends a clearer and disparate message.
  • The disability service offices is an essential gatekeeper that ensures unqualified students will not get away with anything.
  • Course instructors should not be flexible with disabled students. It is only by involving the disability service office that the integrity of the academic experience is protected and fair for other students.
  • Access is an individual problem caused by disability. The design of the course, activity or system is beyond reproach.

How might this be different?

Thinking about documentation through the lenses of diversity, social justice, and equity will move professionals to appreciate that information is needed not for eligibility, but to understand if accommodations are necessary and reasonable. This requires less attention to traditional third party documentation, while placing more importance on the experiences, judgements, and perspectives of disabled students.

Additionally, conversations will ultimately focus on environmental barriers as problematic instead of individual impairments.

View Examples

Sample 1: Documentation

Disability Resources invites students who request reasonable accommodations to meet with an Access Consultant to discuss their past use of accommodations and any disability-related barriers they anticipate or are experiencing at the University. While no external paperwork may be necessary to establish accommodations, medical records, psychoeducational testing and school records (such as an IEP or 504 Program) may help guide our conversation and provide information about specific requests. If this type of information is available, you can upload it when you complete the online DRC New Student Form to request accommodations or bring it to your first meeting with an Access Consultant. Please don't delay meeting with DRC out of concern for not having appropriate paperwork.

It is important to note that other colleges and universities may require more extensive external documentation of disability. Testing agencies, which administer standardized tests such as the GRE and LSAT, often have strict documentation guidelines.

Temporary Medical Conditions

Disability Resources staff assist students with injuries or temporary medical conditions and their instructors in thinking creatively about solutions to access problems that are manifest after an injury. It is our practice to present and discuss strategies and, where appropriate, to suggest reasonable flexibility in academic processes or time lines.

Sample 2: Initial Interview Process

The student and disability resource professional partner to identify strategies, including accommodations, that can ameliorate disability-related barriers. An initial meeting provides the opportunity to understand the student’s disability experience and accommodations that have been successful in providing access. The process will be informed by the student’s self-report, the disability professional’s experience, and any paperwork that the student presents. Based on the discussion, the disability resource professional may implement accommodations, set up provisional or temporary accommodations while waiting for additional documentation, or request documentation specific to establishing a connection between the disability and the barrier. Steps:

  1. The student schedules a meeting with the disability resource office.
  2. The student and disability professional meet to discuss the student’s condition, experience, current or anticipated barriers, educational history, and accommodations that have been effective in providing access.
  3. Through discussion and using knowledge of the institution’s academic environment, the disability resource professional determines whether the request for accommodation is consistent with requirements of the course or activity and with the student’s described disability experience.
  4. When the condition and its impact are readily apparent or comprehensively described, the disability professional will explain to the student how the accommodation will be implemented.
  5. If the meeting with the student fails to provide the information necessary to connect disability, barrier, and accommodation, the disability professional will cull information from the presented documentation to answer remaining questions.
  6. Accommodations will be implemented if a connection can be established. If the professional is unable to clearly understand how the disability is connected to a barrier and how the accommodation would provide access, the student will be asked to obtain additional information focused on illustrating that connection. Temporary accommodations may be implemented.

What is the potential impact of this change?

  • Students’ self-knowledge is respected, trusted and valued.
  • Students are less burdened. They are not required to obtain expensive testing when their requests are clearly supported through past educational experiences and their personal report of what will be effective.
  • Disability services’ staff has the opportunity to know the student as an individual without the preconceptions that might come from an initial review of the documentation.
  • Students and disability services professionals can identify campus barriers and solutions free from recommendations made by external evaluators who are not familiar with higher education environments.