Disability accommodations need reassessment

Christina Coleburn, Opinion Editor

Discussions and resources regarding the rights of students with disabilities in higher education are inadequate, particularly regarding psychiatric disorders. Under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, public colleges and private universities that receive federal assistance are prohibited from discriminating against people with disabilities — which is estimated to be about 11 percent of undergraduates in the United States. To ensure that programs are fully accessible to students with documented disabilities, universities are required to provide “reasonable modifications” in their procedures and policies for qualifiying students. An accommodation request would be considered unreasonable if it substantially changed curriculum functions, posed an undue financial or administrative burden or directly threatened others’ health or safety. Finding an appropriate modification to account for a psychiatric disorder can be difficult, evinced by discrepancies in protocol. Colleges must reassess standards of reasonable modification for students with psychiatric illnesses.

Determining what constitutes a reasonable modification for individuals with psychiatric illnesses can present distinct challenges. In many cases, physical disabilities can be more easily observable and learning impairments largely manifest themselves in educational settings, which can make granting accommodations more straightforward. The protocols for requesting a modification reflect these differences. Some schools, like the University of Chicago, have separate protocols based on disability type, the form for psychiatric illnesses being most complicated. Conversely, NYU uses one simplistic application set for all disabilities with slight variation in documentation procedure. Both protocol styles can be problematic for students with psychiatric illnesses. In the case of NYU, the disclosure may be insufficient to assign a fitting modification.

In addition to questions of proper disclosure, an overlapping issue exists in the ensuing accommodations. NYU offers modifications like extra time for in-class assignments, note-takers, alternative book formats and testing environments with reduced distractions. While these modifications may be helpful for individuals with other types of disabilities, many of them would not account for the toll psychiatric disorders take outside of the classroom. It could be helpful for disability specialists at universities to have an increased advocacy role, as third-party line communication can help make professors more aware of when students’ symptoms complicate class performance.

Students who battle depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder  and other conditions have difficulty functioning academically. Traditional accommodations like an alternative book format would be insufficient to counter the impairment. Universities, including NYU, must reconsider what constitutes a reasonable accommodation for students with psychiatric illness, as current accommodations may not effectively account for their disabilities. Standards of reasonable modification must expand to account for external factors that impact class performance.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Nov. 18 print edition. Christina Coleburn is opinion editor. Email her at [email protected].