Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), schools and workplaces have levels of accommodations that they are required to offer disabled students and employees. These educational protections are specific to K-12 schools and include 504 and Individualized Education Program (IEP) plans.
Higher education institutions, however, are not required to offer accommodations the way high schools are. IEP and 504 plans do not follow students into their college years and comparable accommodations are not guaranteed at every institution.
Despite this, many colleges in the United States still offer academic accommodations. Here at Lewis & Clark, the Office of Student Accessibility (OSA) runs our system for academic accommodations. Many colleges have similar offices and are often staffed by well-meaning people with an earnest desire to help students succeed.
The intent of these accommodations is to eliminate barriers for students with disabilities so that they can have the same opportunities to succeed as students without disabilities. This is often metaphorically explained as “leveling the playing field” or “removing roadblocks.”
Accommodations, then, should be a good thing. I would argue that they are, but are only effective to the extent to which they are implemented. There are three factors that frequently get in the way of accommodations fully serving a student body: stigma, barriers to access and barriers to usage.
Disability remains a touchy subject in popular discourse. What qualifies as disabled and what accommodations people with disabilities need or deserve are contentious. People without disabilities are still often making decisions instead of disabled people. Specifically, accommodations are sometimes misunderstood as a “crutch,” a problematic framing that is both ableist in its language and untrue in its meaning.
Additionally, accommodations may be referred to as “a leg up,” implying that disabled students use their accommodations to gain an advantage, or that people without disabilities may take advantage of the system to get accommodations they do not need.
Accommodations are certainly helpful for students who need them, and there will always be those people who abuse systems for their personal benefit. Despite this, I have rarely encountered an accommodation generous enough to qualify as advantageous, especially not significantly enough to merit going through the arduous process of applying for it.
As distorted as these perceptions are, they still reduce the effectiveness of the system. Stigma can discourage those who need accommodations from seeking them out. It can make family members hesitant to provide support or assistance. It even makes it harder for institutions to operate, dealing as an entity with the same accusations of preferential treatment or coddling that individuals have to fend off.
Barriers to access
At the individual level, a huge obstacle to the effectiveness of accommodations is the necessity of having them formally approved. Navigating complex systems, lacking formal diagnoses and dealing with the realities of limited resources can all bar students who need accommodations from getting them.
Deciding who qualifies for accommodations can be difficult. Diagnosed disabilities make approval for accommodations simpler, but getting diagnosed can be very difficult, disproportionately so for marginalized groups. Women are often underdiagnosed with chronic illnesses and mental illnesses, as are people of color. Healthcare access is also a barrier, and creates socioeconomic divides in access to disability accommodations.
Some barriers to education, however, are not disabilities. Short and medium-term circumstances, including any variety of personal or familial circumstances, can leave students struggling and unsure if they qualify for support. There exists a diagnosis of “adjustment disorder,” which is a functional catch-all of life circumstances mostly used for insurance purposes, but even that poses all the same difficulties that any other kind of diagnosis does.
Some institutions deal with this by not requiring a diagnosis for accommodations, but rather having a more holistic consultation process discussing symptoms, challenges and what supports may be of use. This, however, can also create a problem, making the application and screening process more difficult for students while also stretching the capacities of offices providing services. The process can be lengthy and demanding—two things that can be very discouraging to students who are already in need of help.
Barriers to usage
Even once students are able to secure accommodations, there can still be barriers in the way of actually using them. Again, colleges are not bound by the ADA to offer accommodations, so ultimately each professor can decide how they want to interpret or abide by the college’s provisions. In higher education, accommodations are sometimes called “recommendations,” which is revealing of what their role becomes once students age out of a 504 or IEP.
At LC, I have found that most professors are extremely supportive and receptive, both to formal OSA accommodations and informal personal requests for help. However, the fact they do not have to accommodate me is always looming, and self-advocacy is vital to get the support I need.
The fact that I have to be proactive, in every class, every semester, and even more so than my non-accommodated peers, can be frustrating. It can pose a constant reminder of “otherness,” and is also a somewhat high-effort endeavor, all in the pursuit of support from people who have already agreed I face academic challenges. Self-advocacy is a good skill to be sure, but for disabled students, learning it has never been opt-in.
All the previously mentioned problems pop up here again. Professors are given ample opportunity to have stigmatized perspectives, and students may find internalized stigma difficult to overcome, even with formal accommodations in hand. The framing of disability as something one needs to build a skillset to overcome is not ill intentioned, nor is it wholly inaccurate. It becomes an issue when it puts the onus on the student to support themself, rather than committing the institution to share in some of the burden.
An imperfect system with room to grow
Accommodations are a relatively new thing. The government signed the ADA into law in 1990, and the mental health field has been changing rapidly. Older generations throw around “back in my day”-isms, usually as a dismissal of what they consider to be exclusively modern problems.
Though this type of comment can range from annoying to hurtful, I actually find that adage to be quite comforting. It shows that things are better now than in the past and points to a likelihood that this change will continue. All the concerns I have laid out, I believe, are solvable problems. Not trivially so, but I also do not think we are doomed to live with these systems as they are now.
Our current societal understanding of disability and how to accommodate it is helpful but incomplete. The blunt instrument of academic accommodations will, I hope, be sharpened over time and continue to improve into systems we can all be satisfied with and supported by, truly evening the playing field for everyone.