Documentation Guide

This guide gives a general overview of what students and parents will encounter regarding college and the process of gaining access to accommodations.

Documentation Guide For College With A Disability

One of the aspects of higher education that I can confidently say that I specialize in is understanding the process for when a student with a disability goes to college. Documenting the need for supports is something I’m intimately familiar with, and not even by choice. At one point in my career I was reviewing more than 1,200 evaluations and related materials to demonstrate medical necessity so that young adults could gain access to the services they needed. When they were denied such services, I had to address the objections from the reviewers and even take them to an administrative law hearing when they were being either unreasonable or not following their own guidelines. I did this for nearly10 years, so I am intimate with the issue of documenting the presence of a student disability as well as justifying their needs in the educational setting.

When I began to work directly with students in higher education, I found out that in some cases the system was nearly the identical. Colleges get to set their own standards for issuing accommodations for students, with some schools being very easy, and others literally reviewing for medical necessity. Unfortunately, too many students and parents don’t realize that there is this level of variability before they embark on their higher education journey, and some students have found themselves in the position of not having the accommodations they relied on during high school continued while in college. Just because a student is accepted at a college does not mean that they will automatically have the accommodations that helped them to do well in high school. I’ve seen this happen countless times.

In order to help prevent this problem, I put together the “Documentation Guide For College With A Disability.” It is in a brief, concise need-to-know format which covers the shift from high school to the college system and what must be considered to get accommodations at practically any college. It covers not only the general changes to expect but the common process and documentation themes required by the hundreds of colleges across the U.S. that I’ve dealt with. It discusses criteria that many schools will use to review documentation, common misconceptions and mistakes parents make before their student leaves high school, and much “insider information” that one could only gain from working with a multitude of colleges directly. It also gives explanations for:

  • Why an IEP or 504 plan may not get accommodations at some colleges.
  • Why the student’s pediatrician may not be able to give them a “note” to get accommodations.
  • Why being accepted at a college does not automatically mean the student will get their high school accommodations continued.
  • Why waiting to get accommodations can cost a student grade-wise if they suddenly need them.
  • Why parents can end up paying $1,700 to $3,500 just to get accommodations for their student at some colleges.
  • Common standards for showing a disability that are considered “customary” by most colleges.

The guide also gives a basis of knowledge to work from so parents and students can check for themselves to find out what they will need for specific schools. Again, some standards can be easy to meet, but others can bring surprises. Keep in mind that accommodations in college are not retroactive. If a student does poorly without them, then decides to request them, a college will not allow them to re-take exams or complete other tasks where they lost points because they needed their accommodations. So it’s important to at least know what is common to expect to get accommodations in higher education to have that available in case the student needs it. This information is especially important for students with “invisible” disabilities like learning disabilities, ADD, anxiety, depression, social phobia, and more since specialty documentation may be requested by their school.

Introduction

For any student who may need academic accommodations at some point during college, having the right “evidence” that shows that they need them is the first and most critical step to making sure they get the supports they need while in college. But in dozens of instances I’ve seen students who needed accommodations be denied by their college, or be put through a lengthy process that caused many weeks or even months delay in getting them. While waiting, the student has to do all tasks for their classes without them, and invariably their grades suffer. For higher education, students with a disability are held to the same academic standards that other students are in college, but they are permitted to tackle those challenges with academic accommodations. That is, if they can demonstrate the need to their college. Accommodations in college are not automatic for a student with a disability, even if they had supports in place during high school. The overall problem is that there is no one set of uniform standard across higher education for demonstrating this need. Colleges get to set their own requirements for showing a need, and some have very easy requirements, while others can pose a high hurdle for students who need accommodations for college.

This guide is mean to help parents and students to be prepared for requesting accommodations in the higher education system. Even if a student wishes to start without them, if they suddenly discover that they actually need them, sufficient “documentation” must be available to get them quickly. Otherwise, the student cannot get accommodations and they may encounter bad grades while they wait to obtain it. Accommodations are not retroactive, and a college will not allow a student to re-take exams or re-do other class requirements with the accommodations that are granted later. In other words, it’s important to get it right ahead of time, to have what is needed to make an accommodations request ready, and to expect that at least the “customary” standards found in the overall college system must be met.

This guide will focus more on requirements for non-physical disabilities (e.g., cognitive, emotional) since colleges seem to be more understanding in their requirements for physical disabilities such as hearing impairments, mobility issues, or diabetes. It’s of critical importance that students and parents check a specific college’s disability policies to ensure that the student has the appropriate documentation for that particular school. All colleges have different policies, and all of the variations are impossible to cover in this guide, so it’s always important to know what a specific college will require. There are recurrent patterns and common themes across colleges for their disability polices, procedures, and requirements, and this guide is meant to give a general sense of what to expect for obtaining academic accommodations during college.

1. Overview Of College Services For Students With Disabilities

In the higher education system, every college typically has a formal office, or at least a designated individual, that is responsible for handling requests and determinations for academic accommodations. At mid-sized to larger college there is usually a fully developed disability office or even a whole department, and usually they can offer a broad array of services. At smaller colleges accommodations may be handled by an individual such as a disability counselor, but even a Dean or Provost may be in charge of receiving accommodation requests at smaller schools. The actual names used for such departments or services range from simply “disability department” to student services, access center, or they may be subsumed in to a larger department that oversees issues pertaining to their student body. Regardless of whether it is an individual or department in charge of receiving accommodation requests, there is a general process for requesting that is common across colleges. Students cannot simply show up at the department on the first day of class and expect accommodations to be granted simply because they ask. There is usually a formal process to go through, and colleges often want weeks to review the request. The delay can be even longer during busy times, such as the beginning of a school year when they may have many requests. The request is then reviewed by the school, and accommodations are either granted, denied, or in some cases partially approved or additional information requested before they are willing to grant accommodations. I’ve encountered many situations where a student’s accommodations were partially denied, denied completely, or additional information (or new documentation) requested that prevented the student from obtaining accommodations. To prevent such problems is precisely the aim of this guide.

Differences Between High School And College Services For Students With Disabilities

Receiving disability supports in higher education represents a paradigm shift for both students and parents. During high school, parents head up the efforts to help their child access school services to help them overcome the effects of their disability in the educational setting. The identification and evaluation of a disability is largely the school’s responsibility, and parents control access to their student’s private personal information. Students may even be afforded access to special learning environments, such as supportive classes or individualized instruction.

In college, the rules are different for students who wish to attend and have a disability.

For students with a disability in college:

  • The student must attend the same classes and complete the same amount of course work as other students, but they may do so with accommodations. They are also held to the same competitive admission standards as other students.
  • It is up to the student to contact the college to access disability supports. It is not the school’s responsibility to actively identify students who may have a disability.
  • The student is 100% self-responsible in that they must contact the right department then request to gain access to academic accommodations. All communications and processes used are between the student and the disability department, parents are not involved aside from a supportive role to the student.
  • The student’s personal information, at age 18, is confidential. This is not a general college policy but federal law (FERPA) and all schools are bound by it. This non-disclosure of student information also includes not disclosing or discussing it even with their parents. A student can sign a release of information to allow this, but otherwise their information is inaccessible to parents.

The Process For Obtaining Academic Accommodations During College

The process for getting academic accommodations in college, regardless of the school, has similarities across colleges of varying size and type. It usually entails that the student must contact the office, department, or individual in charge of receiving accommodation requests to make it known that they would like accommodations while in college. Disability departments sometimes refer to this as the student “self-presents” themselves for services. There is typically some kind of enrollment or request form that is initially completed, and the student is also asked to present formal documentation of their disability to the college. The college then reviews the documentation against their policies and requirements for gaining accommodations, and they will either grant or deny the requested accommodations. There is no uniformity across colleges regarding what kinds of documentation is needed, and each gets to set their own requirements. However, a comparison of colleges across the U.S. can easily identify some “customary” standards that parents and students should be ready to meet.

Common themes across colleges about the college accommodation process:

Accommodations In College Are Requested Then Granted, They Are Not Automatic

  • In order to be issued academic accommodations for college, the student must request them from the college. Each college has their own guidelines for who may receive accommodations. Keep in mind that this is a request, and that the request can be denied in whole or part. Students must essentially convince the college, through the type and “strength” of their documentation, that they merit the accommodations they are requesting. The documentation is the justification or support for the request. Strong documentation increases the odds of an approval, while “weak” documentation increases the chances of a denied request or problem getting accommodations. Accommodations are not automatic in the college environment just because a student has a disability or even because they had an IEP or 504 Plan during high school.
  • Colleges require that the student submit documentation of their disability in advance of the term for which they would like to have them. Typically the school’s disability office will want the documentation three to six weeks in advance so they can review it. Keep in mind that the beginning of the school year is very busy for such offices, so wait times can be even longer at such times.

The College Will Often Want To Speak Or Meet With The Student

  • Most often, after reviewing and approving the documentation, the school will want to meet the student, not only to get to know them but to ask them in person what they feel will be helpful to assist them in their studies. Usually a college will ask them about the problems they experience and what kinds of accommodations would be helpful to them. Some schools will actually offer more accommodations than the student has asked for, while others will offer accommodations that are only supported by the documentation. Some schools will wait until after they have met with the student to issue the accommodations, but some will do so based solely on the documentation provided. In order to get the most out of this meeting, the student must be prepared for this interview to give answers that help them obtain accommodations as well as to ask questions that will help them understand how to use the supports they are granted.

The Student (Not Parents) Is Notified Of The Approval Or Denial Of Accommodations

  • The student, not their parents, is notified by the disability department of whether the accommodations have been granted or denied. A denial may be caused by simple problems with the documentation, while at other times it is due to a particular school’s stringent documentation requirements. If approved, the student should ask how the student can then access the granted accommodations. If denied, the student or parents should contact the disability department and ask why, since the problems can be corrected in many cases. Either way, parents should follow-up with the student to see if the accommodation request was approved or denied so the student can correct problems or get instructions for use.

Accommodations Are Not Final Until The Student Signs The School’s Paperwork For The Term/Year

  • Upon approval, the disability office will normally ask the student to complete the final paperwork that they require to issue the accommodations. Most students can simply stop at the disability office once they are on campus to do this. It is an important step, since the accommodations will not be issued until the paperwork is signed. Parent follow-up on a student signing the final paperwork is important since even granted accommodations can’t be used until a student does this.

Professors Are Notified About The Accommodations Granted

  • If approved, Professors are then notified that the student has been granted accommodations. Disability departments emphasize that the professors are notified only of the accommodations the student may use, and are not told about their condition (which is kept confidential). This notification of Professors is not always done directly by the disability office, and some may require that the student hand-deliver written letters from the department to each of their Professors for that term.

The Student Then Can Use The Accommodations

  • The student then begins the school year with the accommodations in place, but they may need to make per-use requests to use some. For example, if a student is eligible for taking tests in a quiet room or extra time for exams, the student may need to arrange for a room in which to take the test. The Professor may have the student come to their office to take the exam, but in many cases the student must make arrangements to take tests at a learning center, tutoring center, or other location on campus. It is the student’s responsibility to complete any request forms for this process. The Professor or disability office will not do so for the student.

The Accommodations Must Be Renewed Each Term Or Year, Depending On The School’s Policies

  • Colleges require that a student renew their accommodation request, either annually or for each semester. This doesn’t mean that new documentation must be provided (unless it expires or a problem remains unresolved). Rather, the student usually has to re-sign the disability department’s paperwork for the new school term or year. Some colleges will issue temporary accommodations if there is a small problem to be resolved in the initial documentation, but will typically not renew the student’s accommodations if it remains unresolved.

Students Are Not Forced To Use Accommodations, But Must Be Approved To Be Available To Them

  • Colleges emphasize that even though the student is granted academic accommodations, they need not ever use them. Or, they can even selectively use them for one or two classes, or even for specific tests or tasks. The importance of having accommodations pre-approved is that if a student doesn’t have them then, then later discovers that they actually do need them, it can be time consuming to get them in place. Students are not permitted to re-take exams or re-do other class grades with the accommodations in place later. As one Disability Director put it, “there are no do-overs” if the student earns bad grades because they did not request the accommodations they needed.

Kinds Of Accommodations That Can Be Requested During College

Academic accommodations are essentially classroom adjustments or supportive services that a college can offer to help the student overcome the impact of a disability on their studies. There are a broad variety of accommodations that a student can receive while in college, which can be used for both physical and non-physical (cognitive or emotional) disabilities. An internet search of accommodations for college can produce a list of many.

Common academic accommodations requested by students for college include:

  • Extra time to take exams
  • The option to take exams alone in a distraction-free setting
  • Access to professor lecture notes
  • A student note taker for a specific class
  • Priority class registration
  • Preferential dormitory assignments
  • Advanced notice on assignments or projects
  • Many, many possible others

The actual accommodations requested and granted will depend on what the student needs, based on the impairments of the disability, as well as the documentation that supports the requested accommodations. Some colleges will actually grant more accommodations than the student has requested, while others may deny parts of the request or even all of it. Some smaller colleges may be limited to what they can offer a student since their resources or capacity to provide certain accommodations may be small. Regardless of the school, it is important to make sure that the student’s documentation supports the accommodations being requested.

2. Documenting The Need For Accommodations During College

While there is no one set of guidelines for gaining academic accommodations during college, there are recurring themes across colleges in their policies, expectations, and requirements for documentation submitted to support an accommodation request. These average policies represent a “customary” standard that all parents and student should expect to meet. Specific colleges may have a lower or even much higher standard than these customary guidelines. It is extremely important for parents and students to be aware of a particular college’s disability polices, even before they choose to attend a specific school. This cannot be emphasized enough, since a student can be accepted to a college then informed later that their accommodations they had during high school will not be continued in the college setting.

Common Kinds Of Documentation For Requesting Accommodations In College

While there are many kinds of documentation that can be submitted by students, much of it will depend on the disability that they are trying to document in order to obtain accommodations. Medical disorders seem to be more understood by the higher education system than cognitive or emotional ones, and some schools may request very specific documentation on the latter type.

A common form of documentation of a disability for college is a student’s high school IEP or 504 plan, but there can sometimes be problems with these.

Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) And 504 Accommodation Plans

  • Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 Plans that students had during high school are considered as valid supporting documentation by some colleges, but not all schools immediately accept these.
  • Some colleges do not honor IEP’s or 504 Plans as evidence of a student disability. Why? Because they are plans, not diagnostic evaluations from the professional identifying the disability. These plans are usually based on a diagnostic evaluation, typically a psychoeducational evaluation performed by a school psychologist, and it is the actual evaluation that such colleges will require instead of the plan portion.

A common mistake by parents and students during high school is that they believe that having an IEP or 504 plan then will automatically allow the student to receive accommodations during college. Of critical importance for college is that the evaluation of the student that the IEP or 504 is based on can often exceed the common recency requirement of “performed in the last 2-3 years.” Many students find out only after they move to campus that the evaluation from high school for their IEP or 504 is considered too old by their college. They must begin classes without accommodations, and there is a further delay in receiving them because the student must be re-evaluated during the busy term just to provide recent documentation.

Evaluations Submitted For Documentation Of A Disability

In addition to IEP’s, there are common types of evaluations that students provide to colleges as documentation of their disability. These are also the kinds of evaluations that some schools may even require in order to obtain academic accommodations:

Psychoeducational Evaluations

  • As mentioned above, an evaluation performed by a school psychologist is psycheducational in nature and is most often obtained while the student is in high school. Common conditions that these kinds of evaluations document are attentional issues and especially learning disabilities, but can also include others.

Psychological Evaluations

  • There are different types of psychological evaluations, but the relevant ones for college accommodations are clinical psychological evaluations and neuropsychological evaluations. While they can overlap to a large degree with each other, and with psychoeducational testing, they are often used to show attentional issues, emotional issues, cognitive impairments, and more. A neuropsychological evaluation can often include much more in depth and specific diagnostics which may be needed for learning disabilities, suspected memory impairments, cognitive processing speed, or overall intellectual functioning.

Psychiatric Evaluations

  • Where the above two evaluations are performed by Ph.D. or Psy.D.-level psychologists, psychiatric evaluations are performed by a psychiatrist who is a medical doctor (M.D. , D.O.). Psychiatric evaluations typically do not include in-depth testing, are often shorter in written length, and are often completed by the physician that a student is seeing for their medication. This kind of evaluation is considered the best to document anxiety, depression, mood, or emotional issues. Psychiatric evaluations do not cover speciality issues like learning disabilities which typically requires special testing to identify. Some colleges will not honor psychiatric evaluations for certain disorders like ADHD, even though the psychiatrist is fully qualified to make such a diagnosis. Colleges get to set their own requirements for documenting the presence of a disability, and some want to see psychological testing done in the evaluation.

The above kinds of evaluations are generally considered to be “strong” kinds of documentation for higher education for a variety of disorders. Beyond these, the variability in what a college will or will not accept can be great.

Other Types Of Reports Or Diagnostic Statements Students Submit As Documentation

Among the other kinds of documentation that students submit to colleges for accommodation requests, the following are very common and may be accepted by some schools but not others.

Pediatric And General Practitioner Statements (aka “Doctor’s Notes”)

  • A letter or report from a pediatrician or general practitioner is often submitted by students as evidence of a student disability to obtain accommodations. Some colleges will accept pediatrician or physician letters or reports, but others simply will not. For general medical conditions, such as diabetes, colleges will usually accept pediatric or GP reports and letters. But for cognitive or emotional disorders, such as ADD or depression, they may require a “specialist report,” which means that for cognitive, emotional, or learning disabilities it will be a psychological or psychiatric evaluation that the school will expect to receive.

Psycho-Social Evaluations

  • A psycho-social evaluation is one done by a master’s level counselor or therapist usually as a result of seeing a person for psychotherapy (and are sometimes called “intake evaluations”). These are typically never considered as documentation of a disability for college, nor is a letter from the student’s therapist (unless the therapist is a doctoral-level practitioner, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist). Some colleges may accept these lower-level evaluations as an initial report to get the accommodation process started, but they will usually ask the student for a more formal evaluation to renew their accommodations for the next term.

Neurological Evaluations

  • Neurological evaluations are sometimes submitted as documentation for an accommodation request for ADD, or if the student has had a past concussion or head injury. Colleges vary on whether they accept such evaluations for accommodations, and may request neuropsychological testing that shows intellectual functions such as memory, reasoning, and other school-related areas. Neurological evaluations are usually not accepted by schools for learning disabilities, which requires specialized testing, or for mood disorders like depression, for which they will usually ask for a psychiatric evaluation.

Common Criteria Colleges Use To Review Documentation

While some schools have very easy requirements to gain academic accommodations for college, these easy standards can be rare. Most have some basic guidelines that must be followed. A check of a specific school’s website usually will show exactly what is needed, however this is not always the case. Sometimes a school’s website will have minimal information, which can accidentally lead one to think that they have lenient documentation requirements. A conversation with the disability department should always occur to confirm or gain more information about their policies and requirements before a student commits to attending a college if they wish to have access to accommodations.

While colleges will vary in their requirements, common ones across schools for documentation to obtain accommodations are:

The Documentation Must Be Current

  • Nearly all colleges require current documentation, which usually means “completed within the last two to three years.” This is referring specifically to the date when the student was evaluated by a professional and the diagnosis identifying the disability was given. Many parents are surprised by this because if their child was diagnosed in elementary or middle school, or even during high school, the thought of having them re-evaluated when they are in their junior or senior year to have documentation for college never occurs to them. Some even say they were never reminded to do this by their high school, so they were unprepared to request accommodations for college. Some schools will temporarily accept old documentation with the stipulation that the student be re-evaluated before their first semester or year ends. Other colleges will simply refuse to accept documentation beyond their stated “recency” requirement.

An Appropriate And Qualified Professional Must Conduct The Evaluation

  • For disabilities, there is an “appropriateness” for what condition falls under the expertise of what type of practitioner. All practitioners must be licensed to practice in their state, and typically a doctoral level provider must give the diagnosis. But the rest is essentially disorder-specific. Psychiatrists and psychologists must identify conditions like depression or attentional issues, school psychologists or neuropsychologists for learning disabilities, but there can be some overlap between professional roles within the concept of “appropriate practice.” Checking a specific school’s requirements or speaking with them will help to determine their view of this appropriateness aspect. Documentation from practitioners lower than doctor level are usually not honored, but may be accepted temporarily while the student makes an appointment for an evaluation with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other doctoral-level professional. Some colleges will have additional requirements, or even checklists per-disability of what specific kinds of tests they require to be performed. Some colleges even stipulate that the evaluator must not have a pre-existing relationship with the student they are evaluating or be related by family or blood to them.

Documentation Must Be Comprehensive

  • While some colleges will accept a brief summary from a physician, pediatrician, or other professional, other colleges will require “comprehensive” documentation. What this means is that the evaluation must cover multiple areas of the student’s life and/or aspects of the disability. Or comprehensive can even the use of multiple formal testing procedures (e.g., a “battery”) to empirically determine the presence of the disability. Comprehensive can also mean that the report contains sections that describe the student’s personal, family, social, emotional, and educational functioning. Most colleges consider assessment processes, like psychological testing, to be comprehensive. The most comprehensive of these are usually psychoeducational (school psychologist) and neuropsychological (neuropsychologist) reports which can contain multiple tests and be lengthy to read.

The Assessment Process Must Be Appropriate To The Disorder

  • For specific disorders there are customary methods used within the professional realm to document specific conditions. For example, in order to diagnose a learning disability, specific kinds of testing must be used to assess the student, and the results would be summarized in a school psychologist or neuropsychologist report. A psychiatrist cannot assess and diagnose a learning disability (unless they are additionally trained to do such testing, which is uncommon). Similarly, a psychologist cannot assess and confer a diagnoses of diabetes, a physician must do so.

The Evaluator Must Describe The Functional Impact On The Academic Setting

  • How the student’s disability affects their academic studies is the “functional impact” or “functional impairment” the disability has on the student. Some colleges make their own determination of this effect, while others require that the evaluation documenting the disability state it specifically. If it is missing from the report, they may ask the evaluator to complete a form or submit it separately before they are willing to grant accommodations to the student. Examples of the functional impact on the student’s studies are that the disability causes them to take a longer time to complete required readings than other students, makes them more distractible during test-taking sessions, or causes them to take longer to complete exams or assignments than their peers. This functional impact is essentially the rationale for the recommended accommodations contained in the evaluation.

The Evaluator Must Make Recommendations For The Academic Setting

  • The professional performing the evaluation of the student to document their disability will usually make recommendations meant to be helpful to the student. If not, the college may ask them to do so in order to validate the student’s need for accommodations. The overall recommendations made in the evaluation could include that they should try a course of psychotherapy, medication, or other things meant to help them. But for college accommodations, most schools say they at least find it helpful to them if the evaluating professional makes recommendations for their realm (the educational setting). Some colleges actually require educational recommendations to be part of the evaluation documenting the disability and need for accommodations. In some cases if these requested accommodations are not recommended in the supporting evaluation they will not be granted to the student (e.g., they will essentially determine that no accommodations are required since they were not medically recommended).

3) Reviewing Your Documentation For Requesting College Accommodations

It is extremely important to make certain in advance that the documentation is ready to demonstrate the student’s need for academic accommodations to a college. A basic review of the student’s current documentation can help to catch any common or obvious problems.

Review Your Documentation

Before a student goes to college, both parents and students should review the documentation to catch obvious or potential problems. The following checks are meant to prevent common problems, but students and parents should also research the policies at specific schools that a student wishes to apply to in order to understand their requirements. Checking the documentation to be used for the student’s accommodation request ahead of time can help to prevent common problems that can interfere with or prevent a student from obtaining accommodations for college.

Check The Date Of The Documentation

  • Check the date placed on the evaluation, which is often simply stated as “date of evaluation” on the first page. The general rule is that colleges normally want to see a recent evaluation, which means completed in the last 2-3 years from the date when they review it. Colleges set their own timeframes so it’s important to check the policies for a specific school that the student plans to apply to or attend. If the student has not been evaluated to document their condition within the time frame the school specifies, odds are that they will not consider the documentation to be sufficient.

Check The Type Of Documentation

  • It is important to know what kind of documentation the student will be submitting to a school. If the student or their parents call to speak with the disability department about their requirements, they may ask what kind of documentation the student will be sending, so knowing the type can be important. Most kinds of documentation come in the form of psychological evaluations, psychiatric evaluations, psychoeducational evaluations, or neuropsychological evaluations for cognitive or emotional disabilities. Physician or hospital reports are the most common for medical conditions like diabetes.

Check The Contents Of The Evaluation

  • For those colleges that require a “comprehensive” evaluation, there are common sections included in such reports. History of the illness, multiple areas of the student’s functioning (e.g., social, emotional, familial), and other general sections are usually included. Most important to obtaining academic accommodations are the diagnosis, functional impact of the disability on the student’s academic life, and recommendations. Also make sure that the evaluator has signed the report since colleges normally will not honor an unsigned version of an evaluation.

Match The Evaluation Against The School’s Policies

  • Since colleges are allowed to set their own guidelines, a given evaluation may contain information requested by some colleges but not others. Many college disability requirements will specifically state sections they want to see in “documentation,” such as the history of the illness, prior accommodations received, tests used, functional impairment of the disability on the student, accommodations recommended, or even more. By matching the evaluation against the school’s guidelines, the strength or weakness of the documentation for a given school can be quickly seen. For evaluations that are missing such information, the evaluator (e.g., psychologist or psychiatrist) can write an “addendum” to later add it. Some colleges also have specific forms that can be submitted to the evaluator to add this information, so it should not be assumed that an evaluation will not work. Some evaluations may be close to the stated policies for a college, and an addendum or submission of additional information may fill in any gaps.

Note Other Potential Problem Areas

  • As you review the evaluation that will be used as documentation of a disability, keep in mind all the issues being discussed in this guide and try to catch any mistakes or gaps in the documentation. Colleges with very specific requirements may not issue accommodations if certain sections or other information is missing. For example, if a student plans to apply to a school that has very detailed requirements for granting accommodations, a missing “functional impact of the disability” discussion or section could pose a potential problem that may need to be addressed. Similarly, missing recommendations for the educational setting that specifically state the accommodations that the student should receive may prevent them from being granted. Even clerical omissions like the date of evaluation, signature, or if the evaluation is not on the doctor’s stationery can cause accommodation requests to be denied or delayed. Use this guide to help find possible mistakes ahead of time in order to increase the likelihood that the student will be approved for the accommodations that they are requesting.

4) Researching Potential Colleges For Students With Disabilities

Students who plan on attending college with a disability have two sets of criteria that they must contend with. First, they are held to the same competitive admission standards that other students are for four-year college acceptance. There are no special considerations or lower standards of admission for students who have a disability, and once accepted they must also do the same amount of course work, take the same exams, and write the same papers as other students. The second set of criteria they must meet is being eligible, according to college’s standards, for gaining academic accommodations. Just because a student has been accepted to a college does not automatically mean that they will receive academic accommodations, even if that student had them during high school.

For all students, choosing the right college is an important issue, but for students who will be attending with a disability, college choice is likely the most important pre-college factor for later student success. Not only must students and parents be concerned with the general application process, they must ensure that their accommodations are continued. Smaller colleges, in general, tend to hold greater success rates in the U.S. for students, and those who attend with a disability often report a greater ease of use and personalized level of attention. However, this is not always true, since some small or even highly reputable colleges may have very rigid requirements for students to obtain academic accommodations. Parents and students then have a second level of college research to do, that of the disability department’s requirements for documentation and what services the school can offer. Parents and students should never assume that a particular school will automatically issue accommodations, no matter how good their reputation.

The process of researching college requirements for accessing accommodations holds a few different steps, and each are important:

Begin At The School’s Website

  • Most colleges will list their disability services and documentation requirements at their website. Some requirements may be very general and brief, while others will go in to great detail. Review the information at the website, especially the topics mentioned in this guide about documentation requirements. Brief requirements stated at a school’s website may not always mean “easy standards,” which is why a follow-up discussion with the department is always needed. Look specifically for the type of documentation required for the applicable disability, the required recency of the evaluation, and other information needed for specific disabilities. Documentation requirements can be different for various disabilities, and some schools may require things the student does not currently have. If this is unclear at their website, make a list of questions to ask the disability department about their requirements. Use the information in this guide to determine what to ask about.

Speak With The Disability Department

  • Even if the information is listed at the website, a conversation with the disability department should take place. This will give parents and students an opportunity to ask questions, and often the department will give the sense of whether they are flexible or not in their stated requirements. Speaking with a disability counselor, director, or other “hands on” staff will gain the best information, since clerical or administrative staff are not decision-makers and may be unaware of the department’s position on documentation or the review process.

Identify Colleges With Reasonable Requirements And Processes

  • Part of the normal college search process for students with disabilities must include an assessment of the likelihood of being approved for accommodations. Keep in mind that this approval need not be sought upon entering college. Many students have later found out, contrary to their initial belief, that they do need accommodations in college then suddenly realize that their documentation doesn’t meet the school’s requirements. If, after speaking with a department, it sounds like they will be doing a stringent review of the student’s documentation or have high requirements to obtain accommodations, this should be taken as a caution. It is a time consuming and expensive process for parents and students to meet the requirements for some college’s disability access policies. Identifying schools that have reasonable requirements prior to even applying or attending will help to ensure that a student can receive academic accommodations if they need them at some point during college.

The Pre-Acceptance Problem

  • Most colleges will not accept or review documentation of a student’s disability prior to the student applying or being accepted (e.g., if they did apply) so the student and their parents can see if they will be approved for accommodations. Colleges usually review only documentation for an accommodation request once a student is accepted in to their system, and is “their student.” This puts parents and students at a tremendous disadvantage , since a student can be accepted at a college yet denied academic accommodations. This makes a pre-application or pre-acceptance screening of college requirements for accommodations, as well as a careful review of the student’s documentation, an issue of critical importance.

5) Common Problems And Issues For College And Disabilities

There are some common problems or even mistakes that are found when working with students with disabilities who attend a variety of colleges in the U.S. Common ones include:

Common Problems With College Disability Documentation

Missing Or Expired Documentation

  • When it comes time to submit the documentation, very often parents cannot find it, it has expired (beyond 2-3 years), or has to be requested from a doctor’s office or school. This can cause the student to miss having accommodations in place for the beginning of the term, since colleges usually want it many weeks in advance to review it. Also, for parents who assume that an older report will work, consider the “recency” issue for documentation. Many professional record retention standards only require them to keep it for 5-7 years, so the doctor’s office may not even have it.

Assuming A Childhood Report Or Diagnosis Will Work

  • Many parents assume that, since their child was diagnosed with a condition in grade school, its long history will simply prove that they need accommodations for college. But because of the student’s development in to young adulthood, colleges will routinely want a more recent evaluation. This is a valid concern since what may have manifested as, for example dyslexia, in early childhood may actually turn out later to be ADD, a learning disorder, or other condition. In other instances challenges of young adulthood may now be manifesting in the student’s life to affect their academics, which can be a complicating factor. Colleges normally do not accept grade school or even middle school documentation, and may stipulate that the student be re-evaluated before they are willing to grant them academic accommodations.

Assuming That An IEP or 504 Plan Will Automatically Justify An Accommodation Need

  • A common misconception within the high school system is that if a student has an IEP or 504 plan that this will automatically guarantee that the student will be eligible for accommodations while in college. This may not be true. Colleges vary on their requirements, and both of these documents are plans, not an evaluation themselves. Some colleges will accept them, while others may not. A common mistake by parents is to assume these will work and they don’t ensure that their child is re-evaluated to obtain recent documentation to request accommodations for college. A common scenario is that a student has an IEP or 504 plan in place that is valid through their senior year, then they realize only after the student has accepted an offer to a college and moved in to their dorm that the evaluation used for those plans, which the college wants instead, has expired. The student then has to start classes without accommodations and wait six or more weeks just to be evaluated for new documentation.

Not Checking The School’s Disability Policies And Requirements

  • The focus of college planning during high school tends to be mostly on admissions: Being accepted at a college that a student wants to get in to. But college planning for students with a disability is a specialized and often complex area. Even for some colleges with good reputations their disability policies may be so stringent that they represent a barrier to the student’s success. For example, some colleges even have written checklists, per-disorder, of what must be contained within a psychological report for a specific disability, even down to what tests the psychologist must use. Some schools will not accept an evaluation from a psychiatrist to document Attention Deficit Disorder, while others have formed their own “Utilization Review” team that reviews documentation requests for medical necessity like an insurance company would. Some college disability departments will even dispute the testing methods or interpretation of scores given within the evaluation. Parents need to carefully check a school’s disability policies and speak with the department to determine whether their requirements are “user friendly” and put the student’s welfare first, or whether they set such a high standard to get accommodations that the student may not even be determined as eligible for them.

The Student’s Documentation Is Insufficient For Some Or All Colleges

  • One of the most common problems seen with students who attend college with a disability is that their documentation has simply expired, or that it is incomplete or otherwise insufficient for the college they are applying to. Some parents and students just assume that an IEP or 504 plan will automatically work, or the student is not re-evaluated prior to college to make sure the documentation is current. Also, parents and students may assume that all they need is a “doctor’s note” and turn to their pediatrician at the last minute for it, only to find out it won’t. They then realize that, with the student’s first term starting, they just don’t have the time to obtain the evaluation sought by the school so the student must begin classes without accommodations, which then affects their grades. Remember that there are no “do-overs” with accommodations, and colleges normally will not allow students to re-take exams with accommodations later.

The Student Or Parents Did Not Check A Particular School’s Requirements Before Applying

  • There are no uniform standards for the requirements that students must meet to be granted academic accommodations in college. Every college gets to set their own. In many cases a student did have documentation that was recent and met all the general criteria, but a specific school did not grant the student accommodations because they felt it was insufficient in some way. For example, some colleges feel that a psychiatric evaluation does not adequately show the presence of Attention Deficit Disorder, and they may require the student to have psychological testing completed. In other cases the documentation may be missing one or more required sections, such as the “functional impact” on the student’s academic functioning. It is essential that parents and students check a school’s disability policies to see if the student meets their documentation requirements, and should even discuss it with the department before a student even considers the school as a viable educational route. Choosing the right college is a key step for students with disabilities who wish to attend college, and part of that choice includes whether their policies are student-friendly or set too high of a standard to meet.

Focusing On Admission At The Expense Of Academic Success

  • Some students want to get in to a particular school so badly that they will not only ignore the school’s accommodation requirements but will actually conceal the fact that they have a disability at all. Schools are not permitted to discriminate regarding who they admit, and admissions officers have emphasized that this is often an unfounded fear. But what often happens is the student will begin their studies without accommodations in place, assuming they will do just as well as they did in high school, then suddenly realize that they actually needed accommodations because the college environment is so different. At that point the student can request accommodations, but since they are in the middle of an active semester they will not receive them immediately. Colleges still require the advanced submission of the documentation to give them time to review it, and if they are in a busy time they may not get to it quickly. Some students discover that, in this rush to get accommodations fast, that their documentation had expired or was considered to be insufficient by the college. They then have to begin the process of being evaluated, face wait times of weeks or months, and have to submit it to the college for approval, while the whole time their grades are suffering. Having accommodations in place from the beginning of a term is like having insurance: They may never use them, but if they need them they’ll be glad they’re there.

While Enrolled In College, The Student Doesn’t Complete The Accommodations Process

  • Even if the student is granted accommodations by the college, there are circumstances that can emerge which will not allow them to use them. Most revolve around the student simply not doing things required for the overall accommodation process. For example, even if approved, most colleges will require a student to meet with the disability department staff to sign paperwork before they formally issue accommodations. In other cases a school may require a student to hand deliver notification letters to their professors. The student cannot use the accommodations until these are delivered, and some students simply forget to do this before they must take their first exams. Also, parents and students may not realize that the college requires that the accommodations be renewed each term, which is normally a matter of re-signing the department’s paperwork (not re-submitting documentation).

General Questions And Answers

Is it true that a college will not speak to parents about their student’s accommodations or how they are doing in classes?

  • Yes. Federal education rules (FERPA) prohibit this, so when a student turns18 all educational information becomes student-controlled. What I’ve noticed is that once they become “their student,” which is after acceptance, schools will then begin to observe the FERPA rules of confidentiality. During the application process they may be more open discussing the student’s situation with parents. But, once they are accepted, little or no information can be gained. However, the student can sign a release of information to allow parents to speak freely with their college and the disability department.

My child’s IEP may not good enough to get accommodations for college then?

  • It depends on the college, and other issues. For example, a school may accept the IEP but if it is older than the usual 2-3 year recency requirement there may be a problem. Or, the IEP may recommend things that the student no longer needs, so the college may want additional documentation to support the accommodations the student is asking for in the present. The need for academic accommodations can change or evolve over time, including across educational settings, and prior documentation may not necessarily support that.

So a child can be accepted by a college but not granted accommodations, even if they have an IEP?

  • Correct. And I’ve seen this many times. Admission to a college does not guarantee the granting of academic accommodations to the student. These are are two different departments with two different sets of criteria, as well as different processes. Many parents complain that “I’m paying a lot in tuition and the school won’t even tell me their grades or give them what they need.” This is the challenge for all college parents, but especially for those of students attending with a disability. Checking their policies and getting everything in place prior to attending, even prior to applying, is very important to maximizing the odds of a good outcome for the student.

My child feels that they will be stigmatized if they ask for accommodations. How will they be enacted?

  • Colleges emphasize that everything is handled confidentially and on a need to know basis. Personally, I’ve never had a student complain about their personal information being shared, and I’ve worked with dozens at a broad cross section of U.S. colleges. Colleges emphasize that professors are not told about the student’s disability, and that the student can discretely arrange for accommodations even prior to the class when a test will be given so they don’t feel singled out. It is not announced to the class, for example, that a student has to leave because they take tests elsewhere due to a disability. Again, the students I’ve worked with have never said this has been an issue. If there were, it would be a rare exception in my experience.

My child is receiving medication from their pediatrician for ADD. Is a note from them good enough to show the need for accommodations?

  • It depends. Some colleges will honor simple “doctor’s notes” but I would strongly recommend checking in to the policies for a specific college since it’s not the norm. A student can find out after they are accepted and move in to their dorm that they will not receive the accommodations they counted on during high school. They assumed their documentation would be good enough, but it wasn’t. A general rule is that it’s far better to double check the schools policies and the student’s documentation ahead of time, and to have documentation that is too strong rather than than too weak (e.g., a detailed recent evaluation vs. a quick doctor’s note).

My child wants to start college without accommodations to see how they do. Is there a problem with this?

  • Yes and no. Having a disability while attending college doesn’t mean that a student will automatically need accommodations, and I’ve had some students do great without them. The problem that I’ve seen repeatedly is that, while they want to try it on their own, for one or more classes they can start having problems so they or their parents want accommodations in a hurry and can’t get them. They may have documentation from 7th grade, which is usually considered to be too old, or the wrong kind of documentation, or encounter some other issue that causes delays. They then have to get an evaluation with a psychologist or psychiatrist and wind up waiting six weeks to six months just for an appointment. They then have to submit it to the college disability department, that needs time on their end to review it, which adds even more weeks of waiting. The whole time the student is struggling in their classes and their grades are falling due to this lack of needed accommodations. Colleges normally will not allow a student to go back and re-take exams with accommodations in place, and not requesting them is not a valid excuse to have bad grades corrected. In other words if a student wants to try college without accommodations and it turns out they need them, it could be the end of the school year by the time they get in place. By that time their grades can be irreparably affected. Accommodations are like insurance- you need not use them, but you’ll be glad they are there if you need them.

Why would a college not consider my child’s evaluation from 5th grade to be good enough? The medical condition hasn’t gone away.

  • As I’ve mentioned, most colleges want recent documentation, which usually means in the last 2-3 years (but each will have their own required timeframe). I actually agree with this recency requirement, since I’ve personally seen the student’s condition evolve and diagnostic technology improve during that time to help identify what is really affecting the student. For example, I had one young man whose parents were told that he had “mild dyslexia” when he was in grade school. When he was re-evaluated at age 20 to meet the requirements for college accommodations it turned out he didn’t have dyslexia at all. He was diagnosed with ordinary Attention Deficit Disorder. The importance of this updated diagnosis is that ADD is usually medication-responsive, and the young man responded very quickly to a trial of medication. Not only did his grades go up, so did his self-esteem from now doing well in college. He was much happier with himself and his school life, and had a complete turn around academically. This is why recent evaluation is so important: Not only to provide it to the school but to optimally help the student.

If my child is denied accommodations, can we appeal?

  • Yes, you can appeal a denied request for academic accommodations, but in practical terms, usually just to the school itself. When I began my college work my initial thoughts on this subject were that if this did not result in a favorable outcome, their accrediting body would be the next level, so they could hear the appeal and possibly overrule the school. I was wrong. I actually spoke with different accrediting bodies who conveyed that they do not hear such appeals or complaints, that accommodations a federal Americans With Disabilities issue, so it must be appealed at the federal level (and they added the wait times for these appeals to be heard are usually 4-5 years). In my experience, it’s far easier to ensure good documentation and choose the right college for students with disabilities.

My child was accepted to their dream college but we haven’t checked their disability policies or spoken with the department about supports. Can’t we just force them to give them accommodations if they are needed?

  • I know of no way to force a school to give a student accommodations. Related to the above question, even if you filed a federal appeal or even sued them, by the time the case is heard let alone resolved, the student could have graduated elsewhere or their grades could be so low at their current school that a transfer school may not even consider them. Meeting the school’s documentation criteria seems to be the most viable route, but I’ve seen a number of them require extensive (and expensive) efforts to do that. Some schools I worked with have been very picky regarding documentation, sometimes saying that they wanted a psychoeducational evaluation that may not be covered by health insurance and cost $1,700 to $3,500. Other schools kept rejecting documentation because specific sections or statements were left out of an evaluation. I’ve even seen some dispute the scores and sub-scores of a psychologist report, which is a level of review in excess of the norm for U.S. colleges. Again, the best way I’ve seen to avoid this is to research the disability department’s requirements, speak with them to clarify these and ask questions, then make documentation issues a key consideration when choosing a college for a student with a disability.

My child has two disabilities, do we have to request accommodations for each?

  • Yes and no. The “functional impact” of the disability is what is important, and two conditions can cause the same impact. For example, both attentional issues and anxiety can cause a student to take longer completing exams, which is the “impact” of the student’s condition on their academic work. So both can justify requesting the accommodation of “extended time to take exams.” If the two conditions were affecting two different areas of the student’s academic life, then yes, you could request accommodations for both. It’s possible for some evaluators to diagnose two conditions, such as a psychologist in one report diagnosing a learning disorder and depression. In this case two reports need not be sent on each condition. But if the conditions are assessed by different evaluators, or are dramatically different from each other, then yes, two separate reports may be needed to document each condition. A good example is if the student wanted accommodations for both ADD and diabetes. These would clearly be two different practitioners with two separate assessment processes that are summarized in their own report.

What are some of the common problems you see in your own work for students who want to attend college with a disability?

  • Probably the most common problem I see is that when students initially apply to then attend a college, they conceal their disability or do something similar. They may decide to try college without accommodations, or even no longer take their medication. The problem with this is the risk to their grades, and there are no universal ways to correct bad grades earned simply because a student did not take advantage of the services offered or didn’t follow-through on their treatment. Equally common to this is when students and parents do not make college disability planning a top priority for college choice. This entire guide is meant to help students and parents to be aware that getting accommodations in college is not automatic, and that school policies can vary broadly. Some schools make it easy to get accommodations, while others do not. Choosing a disability-friendly college needs to be a top priority for students, since if they have poor grades there is no inherent protection for them if they become academically suspended due to not being approved for the accommodations they need. Parents and students need to understand that they have free choice of colleges, and if they willingly choose a college with requirements so stringent that a student is not granted accommodations, poor grades or even academic suspension can be the outcome and may ruin a student’s ability to complete a college degree. Having a disability is usually not an excuse for a “next college” a student applies to either, nor do schools consider it a valid defense for academic probation or suspension. Yes, these decisions can be appealed, but it doesn’t mean the accommodations will then be approved. Usually the student will get one more chance, and without needed accommodations the situation just repeats then results in final dismissal. I’ve seen many students with a disability be academically suspended and effectively locked out of the four-year system, without recourse, so prevention must be the mindset for attending college with a disability.
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