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Requesting Academic Accommodations

By: Sheila Graham and Ronald L. English

Disclosure and Self-Advocacy Skills are paramount to presenting the need for accommodation at the postsecondary level. If a student with disabilities has had to practice self-advocacy skills while still in the supervised sanctuary of high school, he or she will be more likely to carry these skills over to college. In a recent issue of Disability Compliance for Higher Education, research suggests that more students are knowledgeable about their needs and rights than in the past. Some of these students are better prepared and able to self-advocate. And, although some students do appear ready for the rigors of college life, many still come to college underprepared. Research has also indicated that parents do not seem to play an active role in transition planning and are often ill-prepared for their role of parenting a college-age student. In some cases, service providers are finding that parents have not received the support and information they need to allow their children to be more independent (Block, 2000).

Even though a student may utilize self-advocacy skills, this does not necessarily increase acceptance by the university community. Quite often, non-acceptance is the result of confrontation ally seeking accommodations or bringing a difficulty to a professor's attention without accommodation suggestions (Rendon, 1994). Implementation of self-advocacy strategies can be aided by disability support counselors who are well versed in disability law, learning approaches and communication skills (Parcel, 1993). Effective disclosure principles are essential for the student with disabilities. Competent disclosure and advocacy skills require shared information concerning disability-related needs; effective recommendations for accommodations; and coordinated procedures to alleviate making changes when efforts are not working (Lynch and Gussel, 1996).

Students and Instructor Postures Concerning Reasonable Accommodations
Attitudes Negative Reactions Indifferent Reactions Positive Reactions

Attitudes toward accommodation requests

Accommodations are viewed as unfair advantages Accommodations are afforded out of obligation Accommodations are encouraged
Student's perception of instructor's reaction The instructor is viewed as being an adversary who is unwilling to accommodate disabilities

The instructor is viewed by the student as being inconvenienced by the student's disability

The instructor is viewed by the student as a friend
Attitudes toward the disability support office The instructor resists cooperation with the disability support office and students with disabilities

The instructor is aware of disability issues and the university's policy and procedures concerning these issues

The instructor encourages students to use the services of the disability support office

The primary responsibility for implementing accommodations falls on the shoulders of the student with disabilities and many are unprepared for this role. High school faculty and parents hinder students with disabilities when they do not allow them to speak and act for themselves. Intervention must take place at the high school level in order for students with disabilities to successfully advocate for themselves in college. Most of these students already know from experience what works best for them and with the help of the established policy and procedure of the disability support office, can relay learning skills to a professor. High school graduates with disabilities need practical instruction to carry the acceptance through into the college process, and once enrolled, they need support as they earn their education (Lynch and Gussel, 1996). These self-disclosure enhancement skills include timing, plan development, assertive communication, self-advocacy and adult cooperation (Siperstein, 1988).

Student Initiative: "I would like to talk to you about my learning disability and the accommodations I need in the class."

Negative response

Teacher: "I have trouble allowing you to have special treatment in my class."

Student: "I'm not asking for special treatment. I have a disability and these accommodations allow me to fulfill my academic potential."

Teacher: "Well, I don't believe that you or anyone else has a learning disability. You just need to work harder."

Student: "These accommodations are extra work and I must put forth more effort than many other students. If you would like more information concerning my disability, you can contact the disability support office."

Teacher: "May I leave this letter of accommodations with you for your records?"

Student: "Certainly, I will file this in my office. Just remind me of these accommodations prior to needing them."

Student: "If you have any questions, you may ask me or contact the disability support office."

Indifferent response

Teacher: "Oh, I don't need a letter of accommodations from you. Just do whatever is necessary."

Teacher: "May I leave this letter of accommodations with you for your records?"

Student: "Certainly, I will file this in my office. Just remind me of these accommodations prior to needing them."

Student: "If you have any questions, you may ask me or contact the disability support office."

Positive response

Teacher: "Hand me the letter of accommodations from the disability support office."

Student: "Here is my letter of accommodations and I will be in touch with you to make the proper arrangements."

Be sure to follow up!

Procrastination can lead to academic disaster. It is imperative that students with disabilities in the postsecondary setting disclose their disabilities at the start of the semester when professors and support staff have ample time to arrange for needed accommodations. During a meeting with a professor, effective communication skills are essential. These skills include:

  • Expressing thoughts and feelings honestly and directly;
  • Making eye contact that is firm, but not glaring;
  • Speaking appropriately in an audible voice;
  • Using a speech pattern that is clear;
  • Emphasizing key words;
  • Using "I" language and not "you" language;
  • Making appointments to raise issues; and
  • Being aware of non-verbal presentation using body cues and postures (Thierfield, 1985).

When to rehearse self-advocacy dialogue

Being aware of communication skills and practicing them will help prime students with disabilities to become competent self-advocates. However, self-advocacy also includes the ability to discuss weaknesses as well as strengths, because students must be able to exchange ideas concerning functional limitations in the specific setting of the post secondary institution. It is the student's responsibility, not the support counselor's, to self-disclose and arrange for accommodations (Lynch and Gussel, 1996). Once a student with disabilities discloses concerns and needs to a professor, an interactive process begins with feedback between the professor and the student, not the disability support office and professor. Unless feedback is a continuing process, the professor might assume that all needs are being met. Yet throughout this process, all participants need to avoid being confrontational, aggressive and rigid (Lynch and Gussel, 1996). Instructors in high school, as well as college, tend to have three primary attitudes towards requests for disability accommodations. These attitudes enhance or hinder the students' attempts at having accommodations implemented.

Student Initiative: "I would like to talk to you about my AD/HD and the accommodations I need in the class."

Negative response

Teacher: "AD/HD is just an excuse for poor time management and lack of prioritizing."

Student: "I hear that a lot and I know it is a common perception. However, my purpose is to inform you of my accommodation."

Teacher: "I just do not want you to use these accommodations as an unfair advantage over your peers."

Student: "I will not work to complete all course requirements as you have outlined them. In fact, these accommodations create more work for me. If you have any questions, you can contact the disability support office."

Student: "May I leave this letter of accommodations with you for your records?"

Teacher: "Certainly, I will file this in my office."

Student: "Thank you. I will make arrangements when I need any accommodations." (Remember to remind the instructor of your accommodations prior to needing them.)

Indifferent response

Teacher: "Oh, I don't need a letter of accommodations from you. Just do whatever is necessary."

Student: "May I leave this letter of accommodations with you for your records?"

Teacher: "Certainly, I will file this in my office."

Student: "Thank you. I will make arrangements when I need any accommodations." (Remember to remind the instructor of your accommodations prior to needing them.)

Positive response

Teacher: "Let me know what I can do to help. Come by my office during my office hours and we will talk."

Student: "Thank you. I will call and make an appointment to speak with you about my accommodations."

Be sure to follow up!

Keeping in mind these respective attitudes and reactions by both students and instructors, the practice of rehearsing projected conversations between them is beneficial for both parties. Anticipating the interpersonal exchanges when advocating for disability accommodations allows the student to have a road map. A plan is laid out which leads inexorably to the goal of academic success, whatever obstacle might be thrown in the way. As the authors of Lifescripts, Pollan and Levine, state: "You'll have an answer to every question, a come back to every crack, and a defense for every attack" (Pollan and Levine, 1996). When planning conversations dealing with difficult personal issues, the interfering ancillary difficulties of human miscommunications can become emotional landmines. Defensive arguments can be avoided when pre-scripting difficult conversations (see examples).

Not only do disability support providers coordinate academic accommodations, but they can also serve as counselor and mentor. With the growing number of students with disabilities attending college, a twofold increase in the last 11 years, the need for training these students in self-advocacy skills has respectively increased (Block, 2000). Training is also beneficial for instructors as they interact with and provide for students with disabilities. Anticipating such interactions with the rehearsal of expected dialogues provides the student with disabilities positive self-esteem in self-advocacy skills and gives the instructor confidence in meeting the needs for facilitating success for those students.

Student Initiative: "I just came to remind you of my accommodation to take exams in an alternative site. I would like to take my test in the disability support office."

Negative response

Maybe you should rethink college. How many accommodations will you get in the real world? (Student leaves the office angry and/or in tears, feeling frustrated and defeated.)

Indifferent response

Don't worry about your grade in the class. Just keep trying. (Student leaves the office still without direction or confidence in how to study for or take the exams.)

Positive response

Tell me how you are studying the material for the exams. Let's go over one of the exams together and see where the difficulty lies. (Student and instructor negotiate how student can best show his or her knowledge of course requirements.)

Ronald L. English is the disability support and technology advisor for the Office of Access and Learning Accommodation at Baylor University. He teaches time management and study skills to students diagnosed with AD/HD and works with the campus faculty members on implementing accommodations.

Sheila A. Graham, Ed.D., is the director of the Office of Access and Learning Accommodation at Baylor University and has published a number of articles on considerations for students with disabilities at the post-secondary level.

References

References

Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Block, L. (June 2000). Documentation, transition and other things that worry service providers. Disability Compliance for Higher Education, 5, issue 11, 3.

Lynch, R., Gussel, L. (1996). Disclosure and self-advocacy regarding disability-related needs: strategies to maximize integration in post-secondary education. Journal of Counseling and Development, 74,352-357

Pollan, S., Levine, M. (1996). Lifescripts: what to say to get what you want in 101 of life's toughest situations. New York: Macmillan, a Simon & Schuster Macmillan Company.

Rendon, L.I. (1994). Beyond involvement: creating validating academic and social communities in the community college. Key note address American River Community College, Sacramento, CA: August 15, 1994.

Siperstein, G. (1988). Students with learning disabilities in college: The need for a programmatic approach to critical transitions. journal of Learning Disabilities, 21, 7.

Thierfield, J. (198 5). Building self concept and self esteem through assertiveness training. In J. M. Gartner (Ed.). Proceedings of the 1985 AHSSPPE Conference: Association on Handicapped Student Service Programs in Post-Secondary Education (pp. 296-299). Atlanta, GA: AHSSPPE.

Sheila Graham, Ed.D., and Ronald L. English, M.Div. attention@chadd.org / October 2001