Pursuing a college degree is an exciting endeavor for students, but the challenge of successfully earning one can be compounded for individuals with disabilities. It is often up to the student to seek out access to the services they need on their own.
The Accessibility & Disability Resource Center (DRC) at the University of Oklahoma makes it easy for students with disabilities to request access to the accommodations they need for equal access to a high-quality educational experience.
“Adults returning to college or engaging in distance learning may have never had accommodations, so this process is really new to them,” said Angela Barbour, associate director of the DRC. “Our goal in college is to make sure students have the tools they need to have the same opportunities as everyone else. We level the playing field for everyone.”
In order to receive services, students must first self-identify as a student with a disability and submit documentation to the DRC. The type of documentation required will vary according to the student’s disability.
Documentation provided by the student should include the following elements:
- A diagnostic statement identifying the disability, date of the current diagnostic evaluation and the date of the original diagnosis
- A description of the diagnostic criteria used
- A description of the current functional impact of the disability
- Treatments, medications and assistive devices currently prescribed or in use
- A description of the expected progression or stability of the impact of the disability over time
- The credentials of the diagnosing professional(s)
Accommodations are determined through an interactive process on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the student's self-report, any past history of accommodation, the professional judgment of DRC staff, the unique characteristics of each course or program and documentation from external sources.
Once the documentation has been reviewed and accommodations are deemed warranted, students will schedule a Zoom meeting with a DRC team member.
“In that appointment, we have an interactive conversation with the student where we talk to them about their disability, how it impacts them and what accommodations they may have used in the past,” Barbour said. “Together, we use that to come up with accommodations that will make sense in the college environment and their current program.”
Confidentiality is Key
"The accommodations are there because the student needs them for the purpose of allowing them to effectively show their knowledge and be graded on what they actually know as opposed to being graded on their disability."
Barbour said students often worry their classmates will know they are receiving accommodations, that the information will show up on their transcripts or that a future employer will know they received services. However, the DRC follows strict Family Educational Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) guidelines.
“Confidentiality is very important,” Barbour said. “The only people who will know if a student is receiving accommodations are the student, the DRC and the professor of a class where the accommodation is requested. We never share what the disability is, only that the student has accommodations.
“Our main objective is to provide equal access for students with a disability. The accommodations are there because the student needs them for the purpose of allowing them to effectively show their knowledge and be graded on what they actually know as opposed to being graded on their disability.”
The types of accommodations available to students depends on their specific disability, but the most common type are extended-time exam accommodations.
There is a misconception that extended time gives the student an advantage, but Barbour said this kind of accommodation is explicitly designed to even the playing field for students, not provide advantages.
“So many studies have shown that with extended time, for a student without a disability, either you know the material, or you don’t,” she said. “If you don’t know the material, extra time isn’t going to make a difference. If you know the material, you don’t need the extra time. The extra time is for students who—because of their disability—take longer to work through the exam based on their individual disability.”
Additional accommodations include the use of stop-out time—the ability to pause the clock on an exam to allow the student to take a break—as well as reduced-distraction environments for students who are taking a course or exam on campus. Other accommodations include audio recording of lectures and using screen readers or voice synthetization software for students with reading disabilities or those who are blind or low vision.
The DRC also provides courtesy services for students who become injured and cannot perform expected class duties—such as writing papers after breaking an arm or wrist—in addition to services for pregnant and post-partum students.
“If a student needs us, I hope they use us,” Barbour said. “We’re not scary. We’re not here to judge. We’re not going to share the information. What we want to do is make sure all students have the tools they need to succeed.”