Colleges and college parents have at least one thing in common — they want college students to succeed. For some students, that success may depend on accommodations to help them accomplish their goals. If you think that your college student may need some alterations to his living or learning environment to be successful, then it is important that you understand the framework in which colleges operate concerning accommodations. You may feel that you are already familiar with regulations if you have dealt with accommodations throughout your child’s academic career, but it is possible that there are variations on the college level.
Some students, and their parents, are familiar with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which may have governed how their elementary or high school handled their needs. However, this act does not apply beyond secondary education. At the college level, two laws affect legal rights and requirements. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 applies to every public and private institution except those affiliated with religious organizations. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies to any entity that accepts federal financial assistance for any program or service. Both laws were enacted to prevent discrimination against individuals with disabilities.
Colleges are legally bound to provide necessary accommodations for students who need them, but colleges also recognize that helping students who need accommodations will benefit not only the student, but the institution as well. Possibly because of the success of IDEA in public secondary schools, more and more students with needs are attending college. In 1998, that number was reported as possibly 1 in 11 freshmen attending college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2011, the number of students needing accommodations may be as high as 707,000 and these students were attending 3,680 (88%) of the nation’s two or four year colleges. That number is likely even higher now.
Who qualifies for accommodations?
In order to qualify to receive accommodations under the ADA, a student will need to document a qualifying condition. Most schools will have a designated person, a Disabilities Officer or Disabilities Counselor, who is the point person for determining what a reasonable need is and how it will be handled. If your student is not sure whether his school has such a designated person, he should talk to his instructor or advisor and ask about the process.
The law protects anyone who has a ”physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”. This covers physical, sensory and health-related disabilities, psychological disorders or attentional disorders, and some learning disabilities — anything which might prevent the student from participating fully in the life of the campus community.
The student must provide a record of impairment in order to meet eligibility requirements for receipt of services. The student is responsible for reporting and supplying any documentation required to verify a need. The college may require documentation of a previous Educational Plan or may require testing. If testing is required, your student may be responsible for the cost of any evaluations.
What must the college provide?
The college or institution may be required to remove any barriers impeding the student — whether these are architectural, communication related, or transportation — or to provide reasonable modifications to rules, policies, or practices. The school may provide aids or services such as readers, interpreters, note takers, adaptive equipment, relocation of classes to accessible environments, audio recordings, computer programs, early enrollment, rescheduling of classes, allowance of service animals, alteration of materials, or substitution of certain courses in programs.
The school is not required to meet personal needs, such as glasses, hearing aids, etc. Tutoring may be considered a personal need. However, if tutoring is provided to other students, it must be made accessible to all students. Colleges are not required to meet a need if a student is deemed unqualified, or if meeting the need would fundamentally alter a program or place undue financial or administrative burden on the college. No accommodations should reduce the academic standard for any student. The college may not charge money for reasonable accommodations, and should honor the confidentiality of all information. Depending on the institution, it may be entirely up to the student to inform his instructors of his needs. They will not be automatically notified by the college.
Equality of access and opportunity applies to extracurricular activities as well as to academic situations.
What are the student’s responsibilities?
Although it is the responsibility of the college to make or allow necessary accommodations to qualified students, it is the student’s responsibility to request accommodations and to provide needed documentation. The student should gather all documentation available — testing, evaluations, and/or IEP. He should be prepared to update testing if a reasonable amount of time has passed. Students should also check to see whether requests for accommodations need to be renewed each year or term.
The student’s ability to advocate for himself is important at the college level. As parents, it is time to begin to allow the student to take responsibility for himself and for advocating for his needs. Encourage your student to make wise choices, take control of his situation, be proactive, take some risks, assume responsibility and speak up, develop a support system, and to learn as much as possible about his disability so that he can explain it to others.
If you have a student who may qualify for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, be sure to begin investigating and planning early. Don’t allow your student to wait until the last minute. But do allow your student to participate as much as possible in the process. Watching your child begin to take ownership of his own needs — and find the solutions that he requires — can be not only rewarding, but reassuring as he ventures out on his own.