• Dr. Nickey Woods

Processes & practices in higher ed disability support services: Why integrity and consistency matter

Updated: Jan 13

I often tell people that I oversaw one of the most misunderstood offices on a college campus. As the former director of a disability support services office, I regularly fielded phone calls from people wanting general disability information on our campus. I received inquiries from people both within and outside of the University, asking about disability resources in the community and on campus. I received inquiries from professors and teaching assistants, asking about accommodations.

The scope of a higher education disability services office is clear. On most college campuses and in accordance with legal mandates and University policy, disability support services (DSS) exist to facilitate the academic accommodations process for students with disabilities. And that’s it. While DSS regularly consults with other campus departments to ensure that students are adequately accommodated, it is not the office on campus that ensures accessibility and the prevention of disability-based discrimination. That’s the job of the ADA/504 office.

What exactly is an accommodation? An accommodation is a modification to a policy, practice, task, or environment designed to mitigate, to the greatest extent possible, the functional limitations associated with a student’s disability. When I explained this to those who may be unfamiliar with disability services, some assumed that accommodations are designed to reduce academic rigor, eliminate academic expectations, or make college “easier” for students with disabilities. I’ve even heard accommodations referred to as a form of “legalized cheating.” Not true. Accommodations allow students with disabilities to demonstrate mastery of academic material without the impact of their disability getting in the way.

But how do you know a student with an invisible disability isn’t "faking it" just to get accommodations?

I heard that question too many times to count. DSS and their dedicated staff members are in the business of promoting equal access for students with disabilities -- not engaging in stealth practices to weed out the ones who don’t. It is true that DSS won’t ever be able to experience life from the perspectives of their students. DSS can’t trade places with a student in order to “prove” that their functional limitations and the way those limitations impact them warrant an accommodation. 

What DSS can do, however, is ensure their processes and practices function with integrity. They can employ procedures that are consistent, straightforward, and rooted in professional standards and best practices. When students seek accommodations, DSS can be diligent and deliberate in ensuring that the requested accommodations align with the student’s functional limitations. In rare cases, DSS might engage with a parent or student who is frustrated because a requested accommodation has been denied. Rather than accepting the DSS assessment of need, they may continue to force the issue in hopes that the accommodation is granted. While the squeaky wheel approach may be effective in other situations, there is no place for it in disability services. If a thorough and comprehensive review process determines that a student is not eligible for a particular accommodation, overturning such a decision simply because a parent or student continues to insist on having it (without an adequate student narrative or documentation):

-Undermines the credibility of the disability support services office

-Reduces morale as the expertise of disability services professionals is disregarded

-Increases the chances of providing secondary gains (advantages) 

-Creates unrealistic expectations that accommodation decisions can be overturned at any time, without justification

-Undermines the processes and procedures designed to lend validity to the process of determining reasonable accommodations

-Increases the likelihood that further accommodations will be granted that have little or no alignment with the student’s disability

Integrity in disability support services should consider processes and practices that are consistently applied, consider best practices and professional standards, and are not subject to modification based on inconsistent or arbitrary factors. This ensures that accommodations decisions are proactive rather than reactive and rooted in the expertise, knowledge, and experiences of disability support services personnel.

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