Guide to Student Accommodations

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About 14% of all public school students in grades K-12 receive special education. At the undergraduate level, about 5% of students — 1 in 20 — are formally registered with their institution's disability office. Thanks to changes to federal law, institutions must make accommodations for college students with disabilities.

The term "disabled" refers to a diverse group, including people with physical, learning, and intellectual disabilities. It also includes people with speech or language impairment, emotional disturbance, autism, or other neurodivergent conditions.

During the first half of the 20th century, Americans with disabilities were often excluded from classrooms. The push to racially integrate schools in the 1960s stirred up conversations around discrimination against disabled students.

High-profile court cases in the 1950s-1970s began to rule in favor of providing public education to students with disabilities. Finally, Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in 1975. The act required schools to provide the same educational experiences to students with disabilities as nondisabled students at the K-12 level.

Then in 1990, the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) replaced and upgraded EHA. IDEA requires public school systems to design individualized education programs (IEPs) to meet the unique needs of each child with a disability.

The same year, Congress also enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The act states that public and private colleges must provide equal access to postsecondary education for students with disabilities and make "reasonable accommodations" to support them. This could include:

Students with disabilities' rights shift from under the umbrella of IDEA to ADA when making the transition from high school to college. These laws share similarities but differ in some areas. For example, in college, students no longer receive IEPs. Colleges may not offer specialized tutors for free. Students must work with their school's students with disabilities services program and their professors to receive necessary accommodations.

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How Can I Get Accommodations as a College Student?

The first step of how to get student accommodations in college involves the student demonstrating that their disability substantially limits one or more of their major life activities.

A major life activity relates to the proper functioning of the human body, such as sight, sleep, hearing, talking, physical movement, or organ function. In 2008, amendments to the ADA expanded the definition to include self-care and the ability to perform manual tasks. It also includes learning, thinking, and working.

A college may ask the student to provide documentation of their disability before it grants them accommodations. According to the Department of Education, they can ask the student to provide one or more of the following:

Many colleges require this documentation to be less than three years old, which can present a financial burden to get. But the Respond, Innovate, Succeed, and Empower Act (RISE), introduced in 2021, could allow the use of older documentation as proof of a disability.

Students should talk to their college's students with disabilities services program or ADA coordinator to start the process. If neither resource exists, students should ask the office of student affairs or an academic advisor how to proceed. Learners can also receive guidance through the ADA National Network at 1-800-949-4232.

Can My College Refuse My Request for Accommodations?

Under the ADA, learning institutions must make reasonable accommodations for college students. But the term leaves some room for interpretation. The ADA defines the term as an adjustment to the tasks, environment, or way things are usually done to give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate.

Students with disabilities commonly ask, "Can my accommodations get rejected?" Schools can reject requests if the accommodation would fundamentally alter the program's nature. Schools can also reject accommodations if they create an undue administrative or financial burden for the institution or if the accommodation is of a "personal nature."

However, schools must provide students with equal access to education to the maximum extent possible. If a school denies a student's request, it will likely suggest an alternative.

If a student believes their school has denied them reasonable accommodation and did not offer a suitable alternative, they can file a grievance or pursue legal action.

Common Accommodations for Students

Accommodations for college students vary. They could include physical changes to the environment, communication aids, or adjustments to policy. So, what student accommodations are available in college?

Modifications for Students

People often confuse accommodations and modifications, even educators. The former affects how students learn. The latter affects what they are taught. For example, a student could get extra time to take an exam with an accommodation. But the exam questions match the standard version. An exam with modifications might ask fewer questions or cover different material than the standard version.

Colleges may not approve modifications that students previously received. In high school, students may have received a shorter essay assignment than their peers. Or, they may have been allowed to use notes on an exam. Colleges are less likely to grant these modifications for students.

Resources for Students with Disabilities

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