Kevin J. O’Connor (Providence College)
Most schools and their disability services office require students with disabilities to hand deliver accommodation notification letters to their professors. This is done with purpose. The exchange of the letter invites a conversation about the accommodation and learning needs of the student in relation to course requirements and delivery.
This essay grew from a question about how often a meaningful discussion regarding accommodations is had. Findings from a brief study I conducted on the topic indicate the accommodation process may have become commonplace resulting in only a cursory interaction between students and professors before or after class when the accommodation letter is submitted (O’Connor, 2020). I view this as a lost opportunity to help students maximize their experience in a course. In response, I share with you some thoughts and suggestions on how to communicate with students regarding academic accommodations with the hope that I may pursued interest in doing so.
The Accommodation Letter
The accommodation letter is a notification (not a request) that identifies the student as having registered with the campus disability services office and identifies the accommodations the student is to receive in your class. The letter forces disclosure of disability status on the part of the student in order to receive accommodations; however, the specifics of the disability itself are not disclosed. The process is backed by federal civil rights statues supportive of equal educational opportunity – the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA, 2008; formerly ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973).
Delivering the Accommodation Letter
A core value of disability services on campus is the promotion of self-determination in the students who access services (Gelbar et al., 2020). The Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD, n.d.) calls on disability service programs and specialists to “use a service delivery model that encourages students with disabilities to develop independence” (Section 5. Counseling and Self-Determination). This includes educating and assisting students to function independently and to develop a program mission that promotes student self-determination. So it is quite intentional when schools put students in the position of having to deliver the news of their accommodation needs to their professors.
Discussing Accommodations with Students
You do not have to be a disability specialist or service provider to talk with students about their accommodation needs. The expertise you bring to the conversation is in knowing how you conduct your course. Here is an approach and some suggestions on how to have this conversation with students:
Syllabus and First Class Meeting
Students with disabilities often look for signs from their professors that they will be supported if they disclose their disability status through the accommodation process (Quinlan et al., 2012). You can let students know that you will be supportive by having a statement in your syllabus that speaks to your openness to work with students needing academic accommodations and referring to it during an early class meeting. This goes beyond simply stating that students needing accommodations should contact the disability services office. It is a statement that lets students know it is important to you personally as their instructor.
Invitation to Meet
When handed an accommodation letter ask the student to schedule a meeting with you to discuss what is in the letter. I phrase this as an invitation to discuss how an accommodation will be provided and an opportunity for me to share in more detail information about the course and how it is delivered.
Preparing to Meet
Ask the student to prepare for the meeting by looking over the course syllabus. I ask students to think about accommodation needs and themselves as learners in relation to what is seen from their review. For your part, you should prepare for the meeting by gathering materials that represent the course and what the requirements will entail. In addition, it is helpful to have a description in mind of the teaching approaches you plan to use (lectures, group work, write on the board, show slides, expect class participation, and so on).
Conducting the Meeting
Let the syllabus be your template for the meeting and keep the accommodation letter at hand. Use gathered additional course materials as needed. I usually guide the discussion as follows: 1) review the obvious alignments that exist between the accommodations listed in the letter and course assignments (e.g., there are tests-student needs extended time-how will we do this?), 2) review other course requirements of a less obvious nature for the same (e.g., there are also weekly quizzes-student needs extended time-will extra time be needed for the quizzes and if so how will we do this?), 3) discuss the student’s accommodations in relation to teaching approaches (e.g., often call on students-is the rationale behind needing extended test time going to hold any relation to being called on in class and if so what will we do about it?), and 4) notify that you will be checking in with the student a few times to see how it is all working.
After the Meeting
Send an e-mail thanking the student for meeting with you and note anything of importance that may have been discussed. Following a first milestone in the course where an accommodation may have been used (e.g., first exam, paper) check in with the student to see how it went. You will discover all kinds of things at this point (e.g., student with fine-motor impairment couldn’t finish open-response items; student finished exam in half the required time; the quiet testing environment wasn’t quite at all; the student had a few questions during the test but couldn’t ask because it wasn’t taken in the classroom; there was so much information on the exam the student couldn’t remember it all). Each of these examples comes from students I have had. In each case adjustments were made that contributed to a more accurate demonstration of learning on the part of the student. Without an open conversation about accommodations and learning needs this would not have occurred.
Here are some additional suggestions to keep in mind when interacting with students regarding their academic accommodations:
It would be pollyannaish to assume that students will always have a favorable experience discussing accommodations with professors. Documentation of the contrary has been shared (Lyman et al., 2016, Toutain, 2019). Be mindful that some students may be guarded about discussing accommodation needs as a result of past experiences.
Avoid asking students what their disability is. Students are obligated to disclose that they have a disability in order to receive accommodations but they are not required to disclose specifics. In my experience students will be open about their disability and share how it impacts them as learners if they know you have their best interests in mind.
Prior to college, students with disabilities receive a tremendous amount of support from others and may not have had the opportunity to develop the skills required to discuss their learning needs (i.e., self-knowledge, awareness). Receive students where they are at and be patient if they do not have insight when you meet. This is particularly so for students new to the college setting.
Remember to hold information about the disability status of students in confidence. Students are often comfortable sharing their disability letters in the presence of classmates but this is for them to do, not you.
If you don’t agree with an accommodation, and it happens sometimes, don’t put students in the position of having to defend or negotiate the request. Start with the disability support services office or person who handles accommodations and then work backward to the student. Have this discussion with the disability services office before you meet with the student.
You are not obligated to go beyond what is in the accommodation letter. This said, accommodation letters are often general in nature and do not take into account all of the idiosyncrasies of a particular course. There may be some adjustments needed or additional accommodations that may be beneficial to the student – to the extent you are comfortable offering these.
Students with disabilities make up a good amount of the undergraduate population (in 2015-2016, 19 percent according to estimates of the U.S. Department of Education, 2016). An important predictor of their college success is the extent to which course accommodations are provided. The process of obtaining accommodations is complex but it can be made easier when faculty are supportive and open to engaging in a meaningful dialogue with students about their learning needs.
Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, Pub. L. No. 110-325 § 3406 (2008).
Association on Higher Education and Disability (n.d.). Program standards and performance indicators.
Gelbar, N., Madaus, J. W., Dukes, L., Faggella-Luby, M., Volk, D., & Monahan, J. (2020) Self-determination and college students with disabilities: Research trends and construct measurement. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 57(2), 163-181. https://doi.org/10.1080/19496591.2019.1631835
Lyman, M., Beecher, M. E., & Griner, D. (2016). What keeps students with disabilities from using accommodations in postsecondary education? A qualitative review. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 29(2), 123-140.
O’Connor, K. J. (2020, June 1–September 1). “Here’s my accommodation letter”: Student perspectives on interacting with faculty about accommodation requests [Poster presentation]. Association for Psychological Science/Society for the Teaching of Psychology Teaching Institute Virtual Poster Showcase.
Quinlan, M. M., Bates, B. R., & Angell, M. E. (2012). ‘What can I do to help?’: Postsecondary students with learning disabilities’ perceptions of instructors’ classroom accommodations. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 12(4), 224–233. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-3802.2011.01225.x
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, Pub. L. No. 93-112, 87 § 394 (1973).
Toutain, C. (2019). Barriers to accommodations for students with disabilities in higher education: A literature review. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 32(3), 297-310.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Digest of Education Statistics, 2015 (2016-014). Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=60