By Guest Blogger L. Scott Lissner, President Elect, Association on Higher Education And Disability
I have spent more than 30 years in college! Most of them have been working with students who have disabilities. For nearly as long, I have been a member of the Association on Higher Education And Disability (AHEAD), which was founded in 1977 to help colleges implement the freshly minted regulations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. For the first time colleges, at least those receiving federal funds, were forbidden from discriminating on the basis of disability and were required to provide equal access to students with disabilities. 1990 brought the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), true civil rights legislation that expanded disability rights beyond the classroom and federal funds recipients to employment and public places.
According to a report from the American Council on Education, the ADA increased participation in higher education by students with disabilities from an estimated seven percent in 1988 to nine percent in 1994. Today, the Government Accountability Office reports that 11 percent of college students report having a disability. Our understanding of disability has also grown. AHEAD now provides guidance on best practices through national conferences and 33 regional affiliates, representing a diverse network of more than 2,500 members who actively address disability issues on their campuses every day, while working on public policy at the state and national levels.
The focus has shifted from simply adding ramps to providing seamless access for people with disabilities participating in all aspects of higher education. Whether visiting a campus for a concert, lecture or football game; taking continuing education classes; participating in certificate programs; or getting advanced degrees, our members work to create a welcoming experience through universal design and accommodations. Our definition of disability has also evolved. We not only recognize a wider range of conditions, but also the fact that it is how those conditions interact with the physical and social environment that creates the disability.
The wider definition and deeper understanding of disability is reflected in the emergence of Disability Studies as a discipline on college campuses, as well as the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 and changes to the Title I, II and III regulations. Last month, AHEAD released a new document entitled “Supporting Accommodation Requests: Guidance on Documentation Practices”. The guidance identifies changes in the law and the underlying philosophy for those changes. It also provides a framework for understanding how those changes affect who is eligible for accommodations. The approach is more person-centered, uses a student’s own description of his or her needs and focuses on his or her educational and accommodation history, rather than diagnostic profiles. This collaborative approach fosters respect for individuals with disabilities.
What Will Be Different?
In some cases, nothing at all. Students who are deaf, and asking for accommodations like real-time transcription or interpreters, have generally not been asked for proof of their disability (such as an audiogram). For others, like students with learning disabilities who are requesting extended time on tests or books in alternative formats, this change is big.
In general, students will need less in the way of formal medical and psychological documentation. The ADA Amendments and the new regulations state that accommodation requests should be evaluated using a commonsense standard, without the need for specific language or extensive diagnostic evidence. A request with a clear explanation of the need will generally only need confirmation from an appropriate professional that the identified need is based on a disability.
Ensuring that accommodations provide effective access requires a process that is responsive to the unique experience and needs of each individual. Students and disability resource professionals should engage in an exploration of previous educational experiences, past use of accommodations and what has been effective and ineffective in providing access. The weight given to the individual’s description will be influenced by its clarity, internal consistency and congruency with the professional’s observations and available external documentation.
If a student is unable to clearly describe how his or her disability is connected to a barrier and how the accommodation would provide access, there will be a need to request third party documentation that explains that connection. Students will want to be prepared to describe their needs.
What Should Students Do to Prepare?
Being able to clearly describe your condition, its impact and your needs is more important than ever. The following questions will help students with this process. These questions also make a great tool for transition teams, counselors, parents and others service providers.
• How do you describe your condition?
How do you describe your condition, and how do you want it described to others? You may choose to keep information about your disability confidential. However, the disability resource office will need to have enough information to evaluate the need for accommodations and services. Instructors need considerably less information and may be told as little as what accommodations are appropriate. Even if your disability is not visible or obvious, it is likely that at some point a few of your new friends and classmates will notice an accommodation; how will you describe your situation to them?
• What is the impact of your condition?
It is helpful to think about how your condition has impacted you in various situations in the past; then to consider how it is likely to impact the typical activities you can expect to encounter at college. You may want to pay particular attention to the following contexts:
- Classes (lectures, laboratory, physical activity, Web-based);
- Assignments (reading, writing, calculating, keyboarding, library work);
- Communication (speaking, listening, phone, email);
- Evaluation (tests, papers, oral repots, group presentations/projects);
- Time Constraints (timed tests, college deadline, assignment due dates);
- Attendance (class, required activities out of class, residential requirements);
- Campus (mobility; orientation/navigation, transportation);
- Residence Halls (roommates, food issues, climate control);
- Co-Curricular (clubs, organizations, events, athletics).
• What have you tried in the past?
What accommodations, auxiliary aids, adaptive equipment, modifications and services have been provided in the past? Which ones work well? Which ones did not?
• What do you anticipate needing at college?
Beyond College: High Stakes Testing & Employment
One frequent question I get is, “Does this apply to the testing agencies (ACT, ETS, LSAC, NBME)?” The short answer is yes. The slightly longer answer is that AHEAD’s Guidance was based in part on the revised ADA Title III regulations for Examinations and Courses (28 CFR 36.309). This regulation covers any private entity that offers examinations or courses related to applications, licensing, certification or credentialing for secondary or postsecondary education, professional or trade purposes. So the high stakes testing industry would seem to be covered.
These regulations require that any request for documentation must be reasonable and limited to the need for the modification, accommodation or auxiliary aid or service requested. They go on to say that entities must give considerable weight to documentation of past modifications, accommodations or auxiliary aids or services received in similar testing situations, or those provided in response to an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended.
Another question I hear often is, “What will employers ask for?” The ADA Amendments Act was motivated by employment issues. In the legislation, Congress directed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to revise the ADA’s Title I regulations for employment. The new Title I regulations utilize the same approach to documenting accommodation requests.
L. Scott Lissner has served as the ADA coordinator for The Ohio State University since January of 2000. Housed in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion within the Provost’s Office, Lissner is an associate of the John Glenn School of Public Policy and serves as a lecturer for the Moritz College of Law, the Knowlton School of Architecture and Disability Studies. His teaching and public service informs his work as the university’s disability compliance officer; energizes his role in creating seamless access to all of the university’s programs, services, employment opportunities and facilities; and guides his efforts as a catalyst for disability-related initiatives. Engaged in community and professional service, Lissner is president elect of the Association on Higher Education And Disability and serves on the Board of Directors for ADA-OHIO and the Editorial Board for Thompson’s 504 Compliance Manual. Lissner has been appointed to the Columbus Advisory Committee on Disability Issues, Ohio’s Help America Vote Act (HAVA) Committee and the Ohio Governor’s Council for People with Disabilities. Lissner publishes, presents and consults frequently on disability issues.