Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
College classes can be especially challenging. As students, we need help every now and then, and for a majority of us, there is a plethora of support available. Whether we ask for an extension or utilize class resources to support ourselves, we all need — and should receive — a little help sometimes.
Some students, such as students with disabilities, may require more formalized and continuous support. At the University of Maryland, this occurs via reasonable accommodations through the Accessibility and Disability Service. Accommodations can range from class materials in an alternative format, to note-taker assistance, priority class registration and extended time for tests.
These support options are paramount to some students’ success, so it is no surprise that student requests for accommodations in college have risen as of late.
Unfortunately, gaining accommodations is not nearly as easy and supportive as it should be. One of the most taxing aspects of receiving accommodations is the difficulty behind obtaining the necessary documentation. This documentation varies based on the nature of the disability and the requested accommodations, but it should include a diagnosis, specific functional limitations and accommodation recommendations. Getting evaluated for the necessary documentation may not be covered by insurance, so it can cost thousands of dollars. Additionally, it is generally a requirement that the documentation be recent, meaning older evaluations may not count as suitable documentation.
Obtaining documentation can be a major barrier for students seeking ADS accommodations, and the process must be greatly revamped. Specifically, this university needs to take steps to relax its requirements on disability documentation and further support students who need accommodations. There are easier, potentially cheaper ways for accommodations to be granted. This includes having less rigid documentation guidelines.
To my knowledge, documentation for reasonable accommodations is notably not a requirement under any legislation or regulation. Just because universities can ask for it does not mean they have to — nor that they should.
This university’s ADS policy also states that a student must submit all required documentation prior to meeting with ADS to further examine eligibility. Conversely, the University of Arizona does not require medical or disability documentation to request accommodations, and students can have consultations without first providing documentation. Under this university’s current ADS process, students cannot even take small steps toward exploring accommodations without first facing the potential barrier of documentation.
Instead of documentation being required to receive accommodations, this university can implement other methods. For example, student self-reports and interviews can be a viable option for kickstarting discussions over disability and the types of accommodations that could be made available to a student. Additionally, to support a student’s evaluation and need for accommodations, observation and interaction by disability professionals may further help to validate the student’s needs. These methods can be less stressful and costly than providing specialist-approved or psychoeducational documentation, and they can still be individualized to support the student’s needs.
If documentation is necessary, it needs to be more accessible. One of the ways this can be done is through using documentation from high school, such as an Individual Education Plan or 504 plan.
Under the Respond, Innovate, Succeed and Empower Act, passed in the House of Representatives 2022, IEPs and 504 plans should be acceptable forms of accommodation documentation. Other universities, such as Texas A&M University and the University of Arizona, allow for such supporting documents and older documentation of accommodations. For some disabilities, this university accepts documents from the past five years. However, many documents may still not qualify because re-evaluations are not required for high school students, and these students in college now do not have sufficiently updated documentation.
If institutions don’t accept older documents for accommodation requests, then they should provide financial support so students could get new documentation. While this university provides a list of testing resources, taking this a step further and supporting students by covering some — or all — of the cost of evaluations would be a more accommodating way to help students get their needs met.
Understandably, there may be some concerns with relaxing documentation requirements. Changes to documentation requirements opens up doors for more students to receive accommodations, but this could strip the services of their overall reliability and accessibility if more people have them. However, several mechanisms can be utilized to keep the accommodation process equitable. For example, focusing on the individual student’s requests and supplied information, using a consistent process of evaluation for all students, providing provisional accommodations until further documentation is received and utilizing the knowledge and resources of higher education disability professionals are all ways where more students receiving accommodations will not inherently reduce the efficacy of the accommodations for others.
Ninety-four percent of students with learning disabilities in high school receive accommodations, but only 17 percent did in higher education. Barriers such as evaluation and documentation requirements are part of the reason why, and it is frankly unacceptable to continue with stringent policies when more reasonable, alternative solutions exist.
Vrisha Sookraj is a junior psychology major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.