Navigating the Higher Education Environment When You Live With Disability
Research over the past 20 years indicates that a fairly high percentage of college students with disability choose not to disclose that disability to a college administration. They are tired of “being labeled” or singled out because of their situation and simply want to participate in the same way as students without disability. This doesn’t necessarily mean hiding their disability (pretty difficult to hide a mobility device or service animal), they’ve just “had it” with permissions, meetings, and forms.
At the same time, many students get onto campus wanting not to disclose, and discover that yes, they *do* have to jump through the hoops at Disability Services in order to access strategic supports.
[If you’ve already met with the disability/access services office at your campus, and provided documents to receive services and equipment, you can skip this next section]
If you’re just beginning the access process, this is what you have to do:
- Be able to clearly explain your disability and your specific requirements for services and equipment. It’s better to ask for more than you might expect to get, but be aware of the possibility that if the school can’t provide a service or equipment and you absolutely need it, you and your family will have to bear the expense, or you will have to find a school where such services/equipment is available.
- Make an appointment at Disability/Access Services
- Fill out any forms requesting services and equipment (usually available online)
- Make certain you have all required documentation.
Below is an example of typical required documentation. It can vary from school to school, and you will find a similar list again, usually on the school’s website under “Disability/Access Services”.
“In order for a student to receive an educational accommodation due to the presence of a disability, documentation from a professional service provider must be obtained. Professional providers may include, but not necessarily be limited to, those identified below:
Disability Category Professional Provider
ADD ADHD Psychologist/Psychiatrist
Emotional disability Psychologist/Psychiatrist
Auditory disability Certified Otologist, Audiologist
Visual disability Ophthalmologist, Certified Optometrist
Learning disability Psychologist, Neuropsychologist, Learning Disability Specialist
Physical disability Medical Doctor, Physical Therapist, Orthopedic Surgeon, Doctor of Rehabilitation
Chronic health impairment Medical Doctor, Medical Specialist
Documentation from a professional service provider must be in writing, must be current within three years, and must include the following when appropriate:
A description of the student’s disability and how he/she is affected educationally by the presence of the disabling condition.
Identification of any tests or assessments administered to the student.
For students identified as having a specific learning disability, the assessment must be specific to the student, comprehensive, and include:
- Assessment of the student’s information processing capabilities,
- Raw data and interpretation of the data
- Specific educational recommendations based on the data interpreted.
- Effect on the student’s ability to complete a course of study.
- Suggestions for educational accommodations that will provide equal access to programs, services, and activities…”
-Source: Tacoma Community College, Tacoma, WA at: http://www.tacomacc.edu/resourcesandservices/accessservices/forms/
What Happens After the Appointment with Disability Services?
After the appointment, you’ll get an official notification from the Disability/Access Services administration informing you of your eligibility for services, and if eligible, what services you can expect to receive.
You may have to place additional calls to Disability/Access Services to determine when services begin, where to pick up equipment, arrange meetings with note takers, etc.
At most schools, YOU are responsible for notifying each of your instructors (every semester!) of your requirements for accommodations. Hang on to that eligibility letter–better yet, make multiple copies to hand out to instructors. Having known many college instructors, I suggest you don’t send this by email alone. Hard copy rules in this case.
Informing instructors about accommodations means giving plenty of notice for them to order alternatives to conventional textbooks. If you’re doing this at the beginning of a semester, expect delays getting the material. This sometimes happens even when you had your appointment with Disability/Access Services many months in advance of the semester. If so, you may have to negotiate with your instructor for extensions on assignments.
Make sure you understand the limits of what the school is providing for assistive technology. For instance, many schools limit the loan of portable screen-readers to specified uses or time frames. You may have to provide your own equipment or software outside those limits.
Some Disability/Access offices are one-stop shopping, and can set you up with tutors, any necessary remedial courses and on-campus health services (including mental/emotional health). At other schools, it’s very fragmented, and YOU will have to find these services separately, even when they are related to your disability.
Most such services are available through departments labeled “Student Services”, “Student Success Services”, “Counseling”, “Health Services” and the like. If you are unsure of where to find services, you can contact staff in an office usually labeled “Dean of Student Services”. College Deans are top-level administrators who oversee a number of related departments. Their staff are knowledgeable about all departments under that Dean’s authority.
Who to Talk with About Issues
What if you have issues with instructors not allowing or ignoring your accommodations?
Your first step should be to re-issue your eligibility letter to that instructor, following up by requesting the Disability/Access office to notify the instructor of your eligibility through their office. If this doesn’t resolve the issue, all schools accepting federal funds will have a Section 504 Coordinator (or similar title) on campus. This person is probably on staff in the Disability/Access Services office, wearing additional hats. Complaints regarding your access to materials, instruction, and class activities go to this person.
If you’re not using a Section 504 plan but still require accommodations, all schools accepting federal funds will also have an ADA Coordinator (or similar title). This person may or may not be located in the Disability/Access Services office but that office will be able to direct you to them.
[The ADA Coordinator is also the person to see when you have an unresolved issue around physical access on campus or with any program offered away from the main campus.]
Complaints about instructors *not* relating to your accommodations are usually addressed to the Dean of Academic Affairs (yes, another Dean), or the Chairperson of the academic department for that instructor.
In most cases, it’s appropriate to discuss any concerns with your instructor before escalating a concern or complaint up the line.
Navigating the Campus:
If your disability includes physical limitations you’re already aware of how many barriers exist to full participation in any environment. Many, many schools were built prior to ADA, and their facilities reflect lots of poor accessibility design. [I attended a school that only had accessible restrooms on every other floor, and in each case those restrooms were at the opposite end of the hallway from the elevators! At another school, I had classes in a building that underwent (planned) replacement of the only building elevator during the height of the semester].
If possible, move onto campus (or visit the campus) early for some “dry runs”. Acquire a campus map to figure out the quickest to get to classes, dining halls and sports facilities.
Make friends with the administrators working at Campus Police. (They’re the ones who assign parking spaces and they also know the best and quickest ways around grounds and buildings.)
It also doesn’t hurt to know the phone number for the folks who run the facilities. This department is sometimes called Physical Plant, Facilities, or Buildings and Grounds. They’re really useful when the accessible restroom is out of order, when the elevator breaks down, and when you want to know if certain areas are clear of snow and ice.
Lots of Fuss-Why Bother?
All this navigation of a college’s bureaucracy seems overwhelming, listed here all at once. Don’t get discouraged. I’ve listed these possibilities here so you can make notes for yourself and be prepared. With luck, you’ll never need to contact some of these offices or people. On the other hand, “entropy happens”—things sometimes go sour. Knowledge is power!