Manage Faculty Who Resist Disability Accommodations Requests
When faculty members refuse or fail to implement approved accommodations for students with disabilities, it could lead to claims being filed against your institution. Refusals to accommodate may happen more often for students who have an “invisible” disability, most often mental health related, because faculty may believe they aren’t “real” disabilities needing accommodation. Many students with disabilities might seek updated or new accommodations such as extended test time or technological modifications as they learn remotely. When student accommodations are approved by the college or university, it’s crucial to remind your faculty how to properly react and respond.
According to the Department of Education, 19% of undergraduate students have disabilities ─ most often, learning disabilities, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or psychiatric disorders. These students are legally entitled to receive accommodations in their education program but must affirmatively seek accommodation through their institution’s disability services office. Once granted, faculty members must implement the approved accommodations. To ensure your institution avoids claims for failing to provide approved accommodations, take the following steps to combat faculty misperceptions and refusals to comply.
Train Your Faculty
Educate faculty, including adjunct and occasional faculty, on:
- Disability law
- Role of the disability services office
- Types of disabilities, including “invisible” disabilities that are not known through simple observation, though they still limit a person’s daily activities
- Types of available accommodations
- How to provide the approved accommodations for students in class while maintaining confidentiality
Create a video series or faculty guide on the disability accommodation process and the faculty member’s obligations under both the law and the school’s policy. Post these to your disability services webpage.
Provide Ways for Faculty to Raise Concerns
Faculty members may object to providing an approved accommodation because they don’t agree with or fully understand the student’s need. Frequently, faculty are concerned that the accommodation will disrupt class or alter the course or program requirements. Accommodations should not alter the academic or technical standards of a course.
Develop a process to handle these concerns.
1. Allow the faculty member to object to an accommodation.
- Require faculty to contact disability services with questions or concerns about the approved accommodation. The faculty member may be concerned about the accommodation being “necessary.” Or the faculty member may think the accommodation alters the academic rigor of the class. Be willing to engage in a conversation to listen to and address concerns. Faculty should not make changes until a final decision is reached.
- Identify the final decision-maker in advance if the accommodation is disputed and there is no agreement.
2. Look for a solution.
- Once you understand the concern, consider whether modifications can make the accommodation more acceptable to the faculty member. For example, if privacy is a concern, a notetaker may be more acceptable than allowing the student to record class discussion. Any solution should provide the same level of accommodation to the student.
- Be creative and flexible. Consider whether a different accommodation will work as well for the student and allay the faculty member’s concern. As in the example above, instead of a recording, could the faculty member provide lecture notes or an annotated slide deck? Any adjustment may be situation-dependent, but look for opportunities to think beyond a set list of accommodations. Ask the faculty member for ideas; be willing to consider them.
3. Document the decision.
- Memorialize the faculty member’s objection in writing to prevent later misunderstandings.
- Document your interactive discussions with the faculty member or others in the decision-making process; this creates a clear record.
- Determine in advance who the final decision-maker will be if the accommodation is disputed and there is no agreement.
- Formalize the final decision in writing and deliver it to both the faculty member and the student.
Limitations on Accommodations
You can place limitations on granted accommodations. For example, if a student’s accommodation is recording lectures or class discussions, you can require the student to stop recording at the faculty member’s request or when there is personal or sensitive material being discussed. To be fair, make sure that all students are told to stop taking notes at these times.
Your institution may want to make students recording classes sign an agreement prohibiting them from sharing the recording with others during the semester and requiring students to destroy recordings after the semester. Make clear that any recording contains intellectual property of the institution and that the rights to copy or distribute belong to the institution, not the student.
Accommodations should never endanger the health or safety of the others in or involved in the class.
Don’t Forget Graduate Students
Because of the nature of graduate programs, graduate students may need different, more flexible accommodations than faculty typically provide.
Faculty may feel graduate student work should be more rigorous. However, even with the increased rigor, graduate student disabilities must be accommodated. Because of the nature of their work and the program of study, flexibility and creativity may be key. Review this case study for one example on how a doctoral student might receive appropriate accommodations.
With a process in place and some thoughtfulness regarding accommodations, overcoming faculty objections to an accommodation is possible, resulting in a solution that works for everyone.
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About the Author
Heather Salko, Esq.
Manager of Risk Research
Heather oversees the development of risk research publications. Her areas of expertise include employment law, Title IX, and student mental health. Before joining the Risk Research team, she practiced employment and insurance coverage law and handled UE liability claims for more than a decade.