The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that colleges and universities provide students who have disabilities with reasonable accommodations. These accommodations are alterations or other changes to a program or physical environment to allow students to take advantage of the offered programs as much as possible.
Under federal law, reasonable accommodations must not place an undue burden on a college or university. To qualify for an accommodation, a student will have to provide documentation or other proof certifying they have a disability under federal law.
States may have additional laws and regulations on providing accommodations for students. Faculty and staff are also entitled to accommodations, although their requirements may differ.
What qualifies as a disability is wide-ranging. While mentioning the ADA may bring to mind wheelchair ramps, disabilities are more than physical limitations. That a disability is not visible does not lessen the requirements that a student should be granted reasonable accommodations. If you have a condition that will affect your ability to complete a course or degree program, you need to determine the underlying cause in order to qualify for reasonable accommodations.
If you or a loved one believe you have a qualified disability that requires an accommodation, a law firm experienced in navigating the relevant laws can make the process easier for you and improve a student's chances of receiving the best possible accommodation to allow them to succeed in their program of choice.
Most schools require that students provide proof of disability before they can request a reasonable accommodation. Merely wanting an accommodation is insufficient without documentation about your disability that explains what support is needed.
Northwestern University provides an example of what schools may require. Their policy states that students must provide documentation that:
- A qualified professional completed, and this professional does not have a relationship or is related to the student
- References a diagnosis
- Indicates functional limitations in the context of the student's education
Northwestern's policy also states that the documentation is not about proving a disability but instead intended to help the university and student determine the best accommodations. Filing documentation with the school does not guarantee the school provides accommodation.
In addition, a student with a disability must still meet all prerequisites for a course. In some cases, a school may also have a policy explicitly mentioning requirements that cannot be waived or altered. Northwestern, for example, does not allow any waiver of its foreign language requirement. Students may request the help of a Language Proficiency Adviser.
In addition to federal law, colleges and universities may be subject to laws in the states in which they're located. These laws cannot provide less support than the federal law but may provide additional requirements.
Michigan State University's Disability and Reasonable Accommodation Policy, for example, also includes the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act. For colleges and universities in Michigan, the difference between federal and state law is minimal. Michigan does have a cost cap for reasonable accommodations, although employers with more than 25 people are determined on a case-by-case basis. While most universities employ hundreds of people, an accommodation request may still be compared with the cost cap.
When determining what your college or university may define as a reasonable accommodation, you should know whether local and state laws may affect a request.
Most schools have a dedicated office or department that handles disability requests and accommodations. That information should be included in a student handbook. Alternatively, advisors or Offices of Student Affairs should be able to direct students to the relevant office for filing the necessary documentation and requesting an accommodation.
The University of Nevada, Reno has a Disability Resource Center (DRC) that handles paperwork for disabilities and determines reasonable accommodations. The school also states that any department or professor's failure to abide by the DRC's determination of reasonable accommodations is a violation of university policy. Those who do not follow the DRC's decisions may be subject to disciplinary actions and sanctions.
What Are Reasonable Accommodations?
Schools are not required to provide endless or all-inclusive accommodations for students with disabilities. The law requires that they provide reasonable accommodations.
Federal law does not include a formula for determining what constitutes a reasonable accommodation. Some factors that may enter into consideration include:
- The cost, both financial and administrative
- Effective alternatives
- Whether an accommodation will create a disruption or otherwise distract students and/or staff members
- Whether it will fundamentally affect or alter a program or course
- Comparison to the policies of similar courses
A school need not supply every possible accommodation.
Accommodations that place an undue burden on the school or that would fundamentally alter the course are unlikely to be approved. Likewise, a school may consider existing resources and whether they provide a viable alternative.
For example, you request an accommodation that does not have a direct financial cost. It would put, however, a significant burden on members of the staff or faculty. On that basis, a school may reject the request or suggest an alternative.
Reasonable accommodations should not alter the fundamental requirements of a course. Dissecting a frog provides a good example of what this means.
Due to hand tremors, a student is unable to dissect a frog. They have submitted the proper documentation and requested accommodation to use a computer simulation instead. If the purpose of the dissection is to learn about the location of organs, such a request is likely to be granted because the computer simulation provides a similar lesson.
On the other hand, if the purpose of the assignment is to learn how to dissect a frog, a school may deny that accommodation because the dissection is a fundamental requirement of the class. In other words, in the first example, the dissection was a means to an end, whereas in the second, it was the main purpose.
For the first example, if the school does not have access to the dissecting computer program and would have to pay hundreds of dollars to purchase it, the school may suggest that the student instead observe another student dissecting the frog. This would still allow the student to learn about the placement of the organs without requiring the school to spend hundreds of dollars.
What seems a reasonable accommodation in some cases may not be so n others. One advantage of recent advances in technology is that students can now attend virtual classes, which are often cited as a good option for students with mobility issues. For at least one course at Caltech, though, the school believed in-person attendance was part of a class's fundamental requirements. The school recently denied a student's request for virtual attendance on this basis.
When determining whether an accommodation is reasonable, a school may look to similar courses or the same course taught by different professors for guidance. This can be especially true when an accommodation is about a specific class policy and not a university-wide one.
For example, a student is taking an Intro to Algebra class that bans the use of calculators on tests. Due to a learning disability, the student requests to use a calculator on the test.
Three professors teach Intro to Algebra. The school reviews each class policy to see if the other two professors allow calculators. If all three classes deny the use of calculators because the math department believes it fundamentally alters the course, the student may have a difficult time arguing for that accommodation.
If, however, the no-calculator policy is specific to that one professor, an accommodation is more likely to be allowed. Since some Intro to Algebra courses allow the use of a calculator, it is not fundamental to the course.
One caveat, however, is whether allowing this student to use a calculator gives them an advantage compared to other students. Reasonable accommodations should put a student on equal footing with classmates, and for this reason, a school may still deny the request.
In this situation, one alternative would be to potentially switch the student into a class with a professor who allows calculators. Depending on when the request occurs during the semester and the student's schedule, this option may or may not be feasible.
This highlights an important, if unofficial, part of granting reasonable accommodations. Most schools expect students to be proactive in addressing their disability and finding alternatives when possible. In the Intro to Algebra example, the involved student could have inquired about the individual professor's policies before registering for courses and, if possible, selected one that allowed calculators.
Requesting reasonable accommodations should not put the burden on either the school or the student. When a student takes on the majority of the burden, hiring a qualified legal team will minimize the disruption to the student.
If the scope of a requested modification would place an undue burden on a school, implementing part of a plan may be an alternative.
A small college offers a class on clean energy. Three years ago, the school installed solar panels on a hill above the campus. As part of the clean energy class, one session involves hiking up to the solar panels.
One member of the class has a recognized disability and is unable to walk up the hill. The student, not wanting to miss out on the opportunity, requests that the school construct an accessible path. As this option will cost thousands of dollars for a single class, the school is unlikely to agree to this option.
The student then requests that no one go up the hill and instead watch a video about solar panels. The student found a video that costs $20 to purchase that covers much the same information as the hike. The professor still thinks the hike is the best option but agrees the video is a good alternative. The course will now allow all students to decide whether to hike up the hill or remain in the class and watch the video.
Faculty and Staff
Reasonable accommodation rules also apply to employees, including faculty members, at colleges and universities. They are much the same as those listed above, although the focus is on enabling individuals to perform essential functions of their job. Most schools will have a separate department or set of guidelines for staff and faculty with disabilities. In addition to its student policy mentioned above, Northwestern University has a separate accommodation policy and office for faculty and staff, which also covers pregnant employees.
A reasonable accommodation must be provided to both full- and part-time employees, including those in probationary periods. Contract or freelance employees do not qualify, although a school may choose to include them.
If necessary, a university or college, as an employer, may request reasonable documentation from a medical professional. This document should not be overly broad, simply sufficient to determine if a request for an accommodation is needed.
As with students, faculty and staff members may have additional rights for reasonable accommodations under state or local law. Colleges and universities may also have their own policies, although they will not have the backing of federal law if contested.
A survey funded by the U.S. Department of Labor found that almost 60 percent of accommodations cost nothing to employers. The rest of the accommodations averaged approximately $500 to implement. This study indicated most employers found the cost of accommodations worthwhile as they increased productivity and decreased training costs.
Qualified Legal Professional
Federal law requires that schools provide students who have disabilities with reasonable accommodations. Such accommodations recognize that each person is different and requires individualized support. As long as these accommodations do not place an undue burden on a school or fundamentally alter a course, colleges and universities should be willing to work with all members of their communities to enable them to complete a course or do their job.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Even when a student files the required documents and requests a reasonable accommodation, a college or university may deny their request. Failure to provide students with accommodations can result in otherwise qualified students underperforming, to the detriment of their future careers, or being unable to complete a program.
Hiring a legal team with nationwide experience in navigating the ADA can help improve your chances of getting the accommodations to which you're entitled. They can help you consider your options and receive the support you need to succeed. Contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or online.