Faculty FAQ

Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires that the University provide reasonable accommodations to students who have identified themselves as disabled and have provided Disability Support Services with documentation of their disability.

How many students at the University have physical or learning disabilities?

Last year the Office of Accessibility and Health Promotion had contact from more than 100 students, mostly from the Women’s College.

What exactly are learning disabilities? How are they defined?

People have many different kinds of cognitive abilities. Someone who has a learning disability has at least an average IQ overall, but there are significant gaps in specific cognitive development.

A learning disability is a neurological condition. It is important to keep in mind that no amount of effort or strength of character can correct a neurological deficit. This type of condition tends to be life-long, and individuals with learning disabilities have to focus their efforts on developing coping skills to compensate for these gaps in their abilities.

One way of defining a learning disability is that a specific academic achievement level is two standard deviations below the mean for people of the same age. Because college students are often one standard deviation above the mean of the general population, this can be a huge gap for someone with a learning disability who is being compared to typical college students.

What are the signs that a student may have a learning disability that has never been diagnosed before?

Often professors will observe a big difference in the student’s overall appearance of brightness and the quality of their work, especially when it appears that the student is putting in an enormous amount of time and effort. Students may seem as if they have a sort of “mental block” for certain kinds of material, yet be able to speak articulately about many other topics.

It may help to ask if they’ve struggled with this subject before, or if anyone has ever wondered if they might have a learning challenge. Please recommend that they contact the Office of Accessibility and Health Promotion to discuss it.

What are the privacy laws regarding communications about learning disabilities?

Disability issues are covered by FERPA, and when medical records are involved, they are also covered by HIPPA. It is important to show sensitivity and discretion when communicating about these issues.

How do I know if a student has a documented disability?

If they have identified themselves to the Office of Accessibility and Health Promotion and have provided a copy of an assessment by an appropriately trained provider (e.g. medical doctor or licensed psychologist, depending on the type of disability), they will bring you an accommodations letter from the Office of Accessibility and Health Promotion.

Students should be encouraged to identify themselves to their teachers as soon as possible if accommodations are required.

How are the accommodations decided?

Recommendations for accommodations are developed from the assessment reports--conducted by a medical doctor or licensed psychologist-- that document the disability.

What is required of the faculty?

Faculty members are required to provide reasonable accommodations to students with documented disabilities who present them with the accommodations letter from the Office of Accessibility and Health Promotion.

Some examples of common accommodations include:

  • Extended time for exams
  • Testing in a quiet environment
  • Use of a note-taker or tape-recorder in class
  • Use of a laptop
  • Use of audio textbooks
  • Extended due dates for large projects (mutually agreed upon in advance)
  • Being provided with written instructions for assignments
  • Provision of tutoring services

More specific accommodations may be recommended on a case-by-case basis.

What kind of performance is expected of students with disabilities?

Students with disabilities are expected to master the same material as other students in class. Students use their accommodations to achieve this goal.

For example, a student with a disability of written language may demonstrate mastery of the course material using an oral examination format. For a writing course, however, an oral format would not be a “reasonable” accommodation; but a student might be given extra time and be allowed to use a laptop to access the Spellcheck function.

Am I expected to grade students with disabilities differently than other students?

Students with disabilities are held to the same standards for grading as other students. An exception for this may be the use of extended time or due date accommodations if other students are penalized for lateness. These accommodations are not intended to be a “last-minute excuse,” but are based on a realistic assessment that the disability can be predicted to cause the student to require significantly more time for a given assignment or test.

Students with disabilities should meet with you well in advance to discuss any possible time accommodations; the due date should be agreed upon by both you and the student ahead of time. So although a student may get more time to complete an assignment than other students, they should comply with the mutually agreed upon extended due date and should not be late.

It seems like it's not fair to the other students to treat some individuals differently than others. What is the rationale for this?

Accommodations provide students with disabilites equal opportunity access. 

For example, most professors know about how long students need to complete an examination. Allowing them to just sit there longer would not be likely to significantly improve their scores. But for a student with a learning disability that requires extra time, there could be a dramatic difference in their ability to demonstrate their true level of mastery of the material.

What if a student needs to be tested for learning disabilities?

If you suspect that a student needs testing, please refer them to the Office of Accessibility and Health Promotion as soon as possible. Currently, we do not own the testing materials necessary to do assessments here. We have a list of providers who can work with students on nearly any budget to get their assessments done.

What do I do if the student gives me a copy of their assessment report from the doctor?

Most faculty members do not have the appropriate level of training to adequately interpret the technical language of a neuropsychological or medical assessment report. The report is also a medical document covered by the HIPPA laws and is protected information that needs to be stored securely.

The best thing to do is to ask the student to please bring the report to the Office of Accessibility and Health Promotion as soon as possible and develop an accommodations plan based on the report. The student can then bring you a copy of the accommodations plan with specific recommendations for what you need to do to assist the student.

What do I do if I truly believe a student has a learning disability but they have no documentation, and they just told me as we’re sitting down to take a test?

You may feel sympathy for the student and want to grant them an accommodation on the spot, for example extended time for the test. The problem we run into later is if another student feels that they should also be given special treatment without also having to provide documentation;this leniency can be viewed as differential enforcement of our policies.

It would be preferable to try to prevent this last-minute stress by announcing to each class early (and repeatedly) that no accommodations will be given unless they have first registered with the Office of Accessibility and Health Promotion.

Sometimes students are embarrassed to have a learning disability. It can be helpful for professors to emphasize that communication with the Office of Accessibility and Health Promotion is confidential, and that any records of accommodations are maintained separately and are not part of their transcripts. In other words, you can usually assuage their concerns about embarrassment, particularly if your attitude with them is sensitive and discrete.