Requesting Accommodations in Higher Education

By Sahlen, Cheryl A. Hurtubis; Lehmann, Jean P. | Teaching Exceptional Children, January/February 2006 | Go to article overview

Requesting Accommodations in Higher Education


Sahlen, Cheryl A. Hurtubis, Lehmann, Jean P., Teaching Exceptional Children


Rory is a student at Post Secondary College (PSC), a public, nonprofit, four-year accredited institution. Rory, who has a learning disability, is in the second semester of his freshman year. He plans to take a biology course next semester and is requesting an audio computer as an accommodation to help him learn vocabulary. This article uses the example of Rory to explore student and institutional considerations during the process of obtaining accommodations at the postsecondary level.

Each year, an increasing number of students with disabilities begin their postsecondary education (HEATH, 1999). Like Rory, many of these students do not understand their rights or the process for requesting accommodations when they arrive at postsecondary institutions (Stodden & Whelley, 2004). The transition from high school to post secondary education signals a transition in responsibility for advocacy for support services. Understanding the process of requesting accommodations in a new environment may save time, alleviate frustrations, and facilitate informed decisions regarding accommodation efforts.

Postsecondary survival requires that students who are accustomed to being special education recipients become proactive self-advocates if they want to receive support services. Legislation outlines the accommodation requirements for students with identified disabilities (see box, "What Are the Laws?").

Although postsecondary institutions have an obligation to level the playing field for students with disabilities, the rules for requesting and receiving accommodations differ from the rules in high school. The differences become apparent as soon as the student who is "otherwise qualified for admission" begins his or her postsecondary education. At that time, the burden of responsibility for obtaining services shifts to him or her (see box, "Requesting Support in Postsecondary Education" for a description of the process of requesting services).

Accommodation Considerations

The lead author studied eight court cases about contested requests tried at the Supreme Court level (see box, "Eight Case Summaries"). Reviewing these cases enabled the authors to identify the considerations that students and postsecondary institutions addressed during deliberations about accommodation requests. As shown in Table 1, five considerations relate to requests for academic accommodations.

Putting the Considerations Into Practice

Consideration 1: Legal Responsibility of the Postsecondary Institution

The first step is to clarify whether the institution must adhere to federal laws. According to Grove City College v. Bell, Secretary of Education (1984), if the postsecondary setting receives any federal financial funds, then the regulations of the institution must comply with federal law. In our scenario, PSC accepts federal funds in the form of Pell Grants, so both the Rehabilitation Act (1973) and the Americans With Disabilities Act (1990) govern PSC actions regarding accommodation requests.

Consideration 2: Legal Responsibility of the Student

The student is responsible for having the necessary documentation that shows that a disability exists and that indicates that the student is otherwise qualified.

Rory therefore needs to learn what information he must provide to the college, including results from standardized tests showing his areas of need. Documentation from Rory's special education program during his final year of high school substantiates his learning disability. Because eligibility assessment is the student's responsibility after high school and because the assessments can be very expensive, ensuring that Rory leaves high school with a current assessment is critical.

The information that Rory submits to PSC describes how his disability affects his learning and is specific to his accommodation request. He is "otherwise qualified" because the college admitted him. …

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