Role of Disability Services

Disability service providers ensure that institutions meet their obligation to provide access to students with disabilities. Their primary goal is to provide students the accommodations they are entitled to while simultaneously protecting the integrity of academic programs and services. They have the difficult task of balancing a student's right to access and the institution's right to apply and enforce legitimate academic and technical standards. The balance that must be struck has been described as follows:

  • In determining whether an aspiring student meets Section 504's "otherwise qualified" prong, it is necessary to take into account the extent to which reasonable accommodations that will satisfy the legitimate interest of both the school and the student are or are not available and, if such accommodations exist, the extent to which the institution explored those alternatives. Gill v. Franklin Pierce Law Center, 899 F.Supp. 850, 854 (D.N.H. 1995).
  • Disability service providers accomplish this task by a) determining whether the students have a disability that entitles them to accommodation, b) identifying what accommodations, if any, are available, and c) working with academic administrators to ensure that accommodations provided do not compromise, eliminate, or fundamentally alter essential program requirements and standards. This process is referred to in the law as conducting "an individualized assessment."

The "individualized assessment" that must be conducted involves a consideration of:

  • The student's skills and abilities
  • The manifestations of his/her disability
  • The nature of the course or program
  • The impact the accommodation(s) in question would have on the course or program 
  • The impact the accommodation(s) would have on the student's educational experience

Evidence that this assessment has occurred is generally accepted as proof that an institution has reached its decision concerning a student through a "deliberative process" that demonstrates that the institution has "conscientiously carried out the statutory obligation to seek suitable means to reasonably accommodating [the student]." Wynne v. Tufts University School of Medicine, 932 F.2d 19, 25 (1 st Cir. 1991) and Guckenburg v. Boston University, 957 F.Supp. 106 (D.Mass. 1997).

Faculty members as academic experts also have a role to play in this process. The expert input that is pertinent to institutional decisions is not limited to disability-related expertise. The importance of faculty to the process has long been recognized. "In the unique context of academic curriculum decision-making, the courts may not override a faculty's professional judgment 'unless it is such a substantial departure from accepted academic norms' as to demonstrate that the person or committee responsible did not actually exercise professional judgment." Wynne, supra at 25.

The legitimate input of both academic experts and disability experts must be incorporated into the process. Academic experts are important participants when the issue involves the impact a particular accommodation might have on a course or program, and the qualified status of the student in relationship to an academic requirement or technical standard.

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