College Students with Disabilities Must Know Their Rights and Responsibilities
A colleague recently posted to our community of college disability services professionals about a complaint a student had just filed. The student, who had approval from the disability services (DS) office to use her laptop to take notes, told DS that she had not done so because the professor announced at the start of the term that students were not allowed to use any technology. The student didn’t say anything about this to her DS coordinator about this until there were only two weeks left in the term.
I am not a lawyer, and this is neither legal nor medical advice, and it should not be interpreted as such. (Learn more about me on my main website.) That said, I’ve worked in DS offices for a long time, and I worry that students don’t have the information they need.
It’s important for college students to know a few things:
- at many colleges, professors are not required to have any training on disability issues;
- professors can express an objection to certain DS-approved accommodations. But they have to explain why they think they are unreasonable in their class, and there has to be a process where the objection is reviewed by other members of faculty and staff to see if it is reasonable before students can be blocked from using it in that class;
- professors may not even know that they can’t simply refuse to let students utilize some accommodations without this kind of review, which also means that they likely won’t tell anyone but the student that they don’t allow them.
What should students do?
The best thing students can do is start the term prepared. At the time they first get their accommodations approved, they should ask their DS coordinator what they should do if any professor objects to one (or all) of them. Most students will not have this difficulty, but knowing what to do and what the process looks like may help to ease their anxiety about this.
What else do students need to know?
1) Reporting problems (and doing it quickly) is students' responsibility
It may seem unfair, especially when accommodations have been approved by DS, but it’s students’ job to tell DS when something isn’t working with their accommodations, and they’re expected to do so in a timely manner so that DS can address the problem. What is so unfortunate is this particular case is that the student waited until the term was almost over to complain. DS offices are not responsible for checking in on or monitoring the effectiveness of students’ accommodations, so they won’t know about a problem unless students tell them. And in a number of cases I’ve read about where students have complained to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), OCR has generally found colleges not to be at fault when students have waited to complain about accommodations.
2) Professors' objections may stand
There might be some situations where professors can make a case for why an accommodation shouldn’t be allowed in their class. Typically, this is only when professors can show that the accommodation fundamentally alters the goals of that class, or what professors are measuring in their assessments. Again, students shouldn’t just take professors’ word for it – they should contact their DS coordinator immediately if professors refuse one of their approved accommodations. (Professors can refuse any request that has not been approved by DS.)
To learn what DS directors said about their school’s process, read this post on my blog: What Happens When College Professors Refuse Disability Accommodations
OCR provides two basic guides about the college environment:
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To learn how students register for accommodations, what accommodations are commonly available (or not) and why colleges can refuse some accommodations, read my book, From High School To College: Steps to Success for Students with Disabilities.