The rationale for seeking information about a student’s condition is to support the higher education professional in establishing disability, understanding how disability may impact a student, and making informed decisions about accommodations. Professional judgment is an essential component of this process.
Ensuring that “accommodations” provide effective access requires a deliberative and collaborative process that is responsive to the unique experience of each individual, as advised by the ADA. The disability resource professional should engage in a structured exchange with the student to explore 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. It is often possible to evaluate whether a requested accommodation is reasonable or not with minimal reliance on external documentation. This is true even if the student has never received formal accommodations or recently acquired a disability and is seeking guidance to determine accommodations that might be effective. However, if the student is unable to clearly describe how the disability is connected to a barrier and how the accommodation would provide access, the institution may need to request third party documentation focused on illustrating that connection. Finally, the documentation process must be accessible: if a student’s disability impacts his or her ability to clearly describe the need for accommodation, the office must consider flexibility in its processes.
Each situation must be considered individually to understand if and how the student is impacted by the described condition. Disability is defined by the ADA as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities, a record of such an impairment or being regarded as having such an impairment.” There is no listing of covered impairments. Therefore, the salient question is not whether a given condition is a “disability,” but how the condition impacts the student. This determination is to be liberally construed to the maximum extent possible.
There is no one-to-one correspondence of disability to accommodation. Institutions should consider the student’s disability, history, experience, request, and the unique characteristics of the course, program, or requirement in order to determine whether or not a specific accommodation is reasonable. A clear understanding of how disability impacts the individual establishes the reasonableness of the accommodation for the individual. However, to determine whether the accommodation is reasonable in context requires an evaluation of the unique attributes and requirements of the course, program, or activity. Course modifications or auxiliary aids or services that are ineffective or constitute a fundamental alteration will not be reasonable and therefore will not meet the ADA and Section 504’s minimal standards. The ADA establishes the “floor” not the “ceiling” of protection. The ceiling is established when a proposed accommodation would result in a fundamental alteration to a course or the program of study.
Disability and accommodation requests should be evaluated using a commonsense standard, without the need for specific language or extensive diagnostic evidence. Using diagnostic information as a tool in reviewing requests for accommodation is different than using it for treatment. Determining accommodations requires a more limited range, level, and type of information. These two processes should not be conflated.
No third-party information may be necessary to confirm disability or evaluate requests for accommodations when the condition and its impact are readily apparent or comprehensively described. No specific language, tests, or diagnostic labels are required. Clinicians’ training or philosophical approach may result in the use of euphemistic phrases rather than specific diagnostic labels. Therefore, reports that do not include a specific diagnosis should not be interpreted to suggest that a disability does not exist. The question is ‘Would an informed and reasonable person conclude from the available evidence that a disability is likely and the requested accommodation is warranted?’
Postsecondary institutions cannot create documentation processes that are burdensome or have the effect of discouraging students from seeking protections and accommodations to which they are entitled. This was clear even prior to the amendments to the ADA. The non-burdensome standard is applicable to initially establishing a relationship with the disability resource office and to setting up individual accommodations from institutional personnel, including course instructors. Students should not be required to bear responsibility for achieving access through cumbersome, time consuming processes.
Current and Relevant Information
Disability documentation should be current and relevant but not necessarily “recent.” Disabilities are typically stable lifelong conditions. Therefore, historic information, supplemented by interview or self-report, is often sufficient to describe how the condition impacts the student at the current time and in the current circumstances. Institutions should not establish blanket statements that limit the age of acceptable external documentation. Determining accommodations in distinctly new contexts may require more focused information to illustrate a connection between the impact of the disability, the described barrier, and the requested accommodation.
Sources and Forms of Documentation
Acceptable sources of documentation for substantiating a student’s disability and request for particular accommodations can take a variety of forms:
Primary Documentation: Student’s Self-report
The student is a vital source of information regarding how he or she may be “limited by impairment.” A student’s narrative of his or her experience of disability, barriers, and effective and ineffective accommodations is an important tool which, when structured by interview or questionnaire and interpreted, may be sufficient for establishing disability and a need for accommodation.
Secondary Documentation: Observation and Interaction
The impressions and conclusions formed by higher education disability professionals during interviews and conversations with students or in evaluating the effectiveness of previously implemented or provisional accommodations are important forms of documentation. Experienced disability professionals should feel comfortable using their observations of students’ language, performance and strategies as an appropriate tool in validating student narrative and self-report.
Tertiary documentation: Information From External or Third Parties
Documentation from external sources may include educational or medical records, reports and assessments created by health care providers, school psychologists, teachers, or the educational system. This information is inclusive of documents that reflect education and accommodation history, such as Individual Education Program (IEP), Summary of Performance (SOP), and teacher observations. External documentation will vary in its relevance and value depending on the original context, credentials of the evaluator, the level of detail provided, and the comprehensiveness of the narrative. However, all forms of documentation are meaningful and should be mined for pertinent information.
Citation: AHEAD. (2012, October). Supporting accommodation requests: guidance on documentation practices. Huntersville, NC: Association on Higher Education and Disability.