Making College Accessible to Students with Disabilities

By Christopher Urban, Faculty Services Representative

CTU Student Success - Access for Students with DisabilitiesThe most recent government figures show that 11% of all undergraduate students in the U.S., amounting to more than 2 million students, have a disability. The majority have learning disabilities, such as dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and about a quarter of students have physical, hearing or vision impairments. A significant portion of this population also includes veterans who have returned to school in higher numbers thanks to the GI BillWounded Warrior project and other initiatives aimed at assisting veterans.

With such a prevalent number of impacted students, it’s vital that colleges and universities improve their processes for assisting students with their needs. Not only must schools ensure equal access in their programs, but they should create a more deliberate and collaborative accommodations process that caters to the unique needs of each individual. Perhaps postsecondary institutions can take some cues from Veterans Affairs (VA).

Improving Their Process: VA Steps Up

Over the last four years, there’s been a 50% increase in the number of veterans’ disability benefits claims. Many factors have contributed to the rise in claims, but none so much as ten years of war with greater survival rates. In an effort to reduce the claims backlog, the Department of Veterans Affairs has implemented a new initiative called Acceptable Clinical Evidence (ACE), opening up the possibility of assessing a veteran’s disability claim without the need for an in-person examination.

Under ACE guidelines, if there is sufficient medical documentation on file, VA medical providers can fill out a Disability Benefits Questionnaire (DBQ) and supplement additional information through a phone interview if necessary. This joint effort developed by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) aims not only to expedite disability claims and reduce the costs of a medical examination but also create a more “veteran-centric” approach for determining disability ratings.

ACE is just one facet of the VBA’s three-year transformation plan to reduce the more than half million backlogged veteran disability claims that exist. The transformation to an automated, paperless claims process certainly has the potential to improve efficiency, but continuing to provide quality service and accurate disability ratings while reducing the backlog may prove to be an ongoing challenge for the VA – one which universities are also facing concerning student accommodations requests.

Shifting Focus from Documentation to the Student

Last year, the Association on Higher Education And Disability (AHEAD) published revised guidelines for university documentation practices in response to the 2008 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In the guide, AHEAD recalls the primary purpose of the amendments: to make it easier for people with disabilities to obtain protection under the ADA. Although it may be reasonable for a university to require documentation to establish the existence of a disability and need for accommodations, the institution shouldn’t make the process burdensome by requiring extensive medical evidence.

The reasonable accommodations process should perhaps be a more interactive process between the student and university, where the student’s own report serves as primary documentation. In some cases, external documentation from a third party may not be needed to justify an accommodation for a student, but may only be necessary when the student cannot clearly describe the connection of their disability to certain academic barriers.

While the type of documentation required to grant an accommodation can vary greatly, institutions need to focus on applying a consistent process from one student to another. The process should include a structured dialogue with students, considering their previous educational experiences, past accommodations and what accommodations have and haven’t worked in the past.

CTU Staff - Christopher UrbanBy Christopher Urban, Faculty Services Representative. As the former Disability Services Coordinator for CTU, Christopher Urban has several years’ experience providing support to students seeking reasonable accommodations at the university. He has recently transitioned to a new role with the Faculty Services department, as the Faculty Services Representative. He earned a Bachelor of Business Administration in Finance from the University of Notre Dame.

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Image credit: Flickr/Express Monorail