September often brings with it a slew of back-to-school guides. It comes with tips for everything from how to handle your kindergartener’s first day of school to entire books full of transition tips for those just entering their first year of college or university. Being a student with a disability in post-secondary education can be pretty confusing, and even though most schools are willing to walk you through some of the basics, there are lots of things that sometimes need to be learned from experience. So, just to add to the pile of back-to-school guides out there, here are some tips on how to navigate the strange world of accommodations in post-secondary education.
1) Register with the accessibility office in your school. This is the step that schools are usually pretty good about telling you about. Every school will have a slightly different procedure. Most accessibility services in schools are usually pretty medically-based. Be prepared to have to show medical proof that you are disabled, and many schools will want the doctor/other medical professional to tell them the accommodations that you need. This is problematic on lots of levels, but for this post I’m going to focus on how to make the system work for you rather than challenge why it exists as a whole. If the accessibility office will not give you the accommodations that will work best for you, ask them why, attempt to find some kind of compromise. Bring the issue to the manager’s attention if necessary. If you know that the accommodation is something that will help you succeed, it is important to ask for it and fight for it.
2) Inform your teachers about your disability/accommodations. This part is essential. Just because you have registered with the accessibility office doesn’t meant that you are automatically accommodated in your classes. Most schools have a policy that students with disabilities are responsible for informing their professors, and until the professors are informed they are not obligated to accommodate you in any way. Most schools do this by providing students with information sheets to give to their professors.
There are lots of important things to know about this. Students do not have to tell their professors what their specific disability is if they don’t want to. Students should be giving this information to professors as soon as possible. It is a lot easier to make the case for an extension on an assignment if your teacher knows this is one of your accommodations at the start of the semester as opposed to handing in the piece of paper to the professor while asking for an extension on the assignment due tomorrow. It can definitely be awkward to identify yourself this way, especially if you have had negative experiences when people find out about your disability, but by identifying yourself you are protecting yourself. The piece of paper is kind of like a contract between you and your professor; you fulfill your role as a student by telling them what they can do to help you learn, and they fulfill their role by fulfilling the guidelines put out in the document as best as they are able to.
Another thing to know is that the piece of paper the accessibility office provides is usually incredibly general. This means that it usually isn’t a good idea to just hand the piece of paper to the professor and walk away. Sometimes it is really important to have a conversation or provide more information about what the things written on the paper really mean. For example, one of my accommodations reads “Sign Language Interpreter,” and that is the extent of the information that my professors get about my accommodation. However, as most professors have not worked with sign language interpreters before, there are lots of things that they need to be made aware of to make the process go smoothly. What I have done and have found to be pretty helpful, is I have created basically a form letter that is kind of a how-to guide for my accommodations and I make it a point to send it to each new professor that I have, and if I have professors again multiple times, I check in with them at the start of the term to let them know about anything new regarding my accommodations.