Catherine Wilson is a senior at the University of Maryland College Park majoring in journalism and minoring in history. She also gets distracted easily. Loud noises, a cough or even tapping can break her concentration.
Consequently, Wilson has help to ensure her success in college: extended time for exams and an alternative testing environment, called “reasonable accommodations.”
“I have been really successful with (extended time). I’m able to prove I know the material. And even better, I’m actually able to finish (exams),” she said in an email to VOA.
In a university setting, accommodations may include “reducing a course load, electronic word processing, sign language interpreters, extended time for testing, providing note takers and equipping school computers with screen-reading, voice recording or other adaptive equipment,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Reasonable accommodations have been available to students since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990. It provides “modifications or adjustments to the tasks, environment or to the way things are usually done that enable individuals with disabilities to have an equal opportunity to participate in an academic program or a job,” according to the American Psychological Association.
Disabilities include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), as well as visual impairment, learning disabilities, mobility disabilities and medical disabilities.
Accommodations allow extended time to take exams or standardized tests, like the SAT. Or personal note takers who accompany students in their classes so students can focus on absorbing all the material, according to Karla McGregor, director of the Center for Childhood Deafness and professor emeritus at the University of Iowa.
Increase since ADA passed
Colleges and universities have seen a rise in reasonable accommodations in the past 30 years since the ADA was passed, according to the ADA National Network.
Universities vary in their assessments of student needs for accommodations. Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and plans developed for a student in primary and secondary schools can often be used to support the request for accommodations. Another is a letter from a health care provider, whether it is a doctor, therapist or neurologist, who knows the student and has studied disabilities and their effects, Fawne Esposito, an administrative assistant at Salisbury University’s Disability Resource Center, explained.
The law is clear about reasonable accommodations, according to the U.S. Department of Education: Discrimination of any kind against a student or faculty member with reasonable accommodations is illegal.
To receive accommodation for a learning disability a student must be tested, McGregor explained in a telephone interview. The variety of tests, which are administered by psychologists, measure a student’s learning ability, which will determine the student's eligibility.
Testing not affordable for many
“The trick is that to qualify for the accommodations, you have to take a series of tests to prove that you need them. And the tests are not free,” McGregor said.
Testing to establish the existence of a disability is expensive, McGregor added. Many students go without accommodations because they cannot afford the process.
“Thirty-three percent of university students who have learning disabilities nationwide have accommodations,” she said.
For example, accommodations include allowing an applicant extra time to take a standardized test because of their ADHD disability. Or providing a student with a sign language interpreter to address the student’s deafness.
“The appropriate academic adjustment must be determined based on your disability and individual needs. Academic adjustments may include auxiliary aids and services, as well as modifications to academic requirements as necessary to ensure equal educational opportunity,” the U.S. Department of Education’s website says.
To ensure they get reasonable accommodations, students must first inform the school that they have disabilities and need proper accommodations. This should be done as early as possible, before going off to school, the Department of Education says on its website.
The main idea with these accommodations is that the students receiving them do not “impose a fundamental alteration to the nature of a service, program, or activity, and/or an undue financial and administrative burden to the University,” according to Salisbury University’s website.
While there may be more of a presence of students with reasonable accommodations in colleges and universities, there are still barriers to prevent them from succeeding fully, according to the ADA National Network. These barriers could include being accepted by fellow students, or they could be physical, such as getting access to the classroom if a student has a movement disability.
Students worry about stigma
“I think one potential negative that students worry about is whether asking for accommodations will introduce some stigma,” McGregor said.
Another negative is how long it takes for students to receive the accommodations. Wilson has been outspoken about her experiences.
She said she was unable to complete a scheduled exam when her accommodations went unrecognized, she wrote in an email to VOA.
While accommodations help the student, implementing them in the classroom is a different challenge. According to the ADA National Network, “the misperception of accommodations as special treatment rather than equal access is a common educational barrier for students with disabilities.”
Additionally, students with reasonable accommodations provide a more diverse college experience, since students with disabilities can be considered “a facet of diversity.”
“We want a diverse student population. And having these students included is super important,” McGregor said.
Said Wilson, “When I’m not able to use my accommodations, I am put into very frustrating situations where I feel I am made to feel stupid or inadequate, and I know that’s not the case. Not being able to have them, I feel very helpless knowing I could have done better.”