Aerial view of the University of Pittsburgh campus (Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)
Getting appropriate accommodations is a make-it-or-break-it factor for college students with disabilities.
Still many students enter college without knowing that disability services and accommodations exist for them
By Mary Niederberger
June 7, 2021
Freshman Makala Ruffin had a happy ending to her spring 2021 semester at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg. Her final grades were good. She had figured out how to balance her school work and personal life.
It was a very different experience from her first semester when Ruffin fell behind in her studies and had to drop her biology class and lab.
The contrast between the semesters was the amount of access to the accommodations Ruffin had to help with her reading and learning disabilities. For the first few weeks in the fall, Ruffin worked without notetakers, without extra time on exams and with no other supports. She fell behind quickly.
Dropping her biology class and lab was devastating.
“It was one of those touchy moments where I ended up crying about it because this is my major class,” Makala,19, said.
She said her accommodations were delayed because initially she wasn’t aware they were available. Once she learned about them, she didn’t understand that she needed to start the process to access them before the semester began.
“I honestly didn’t know you could get accommodations in college. I had said to myself ‘this is going to be a really big transition to having all of this support (at East Allegheny High School) to not having it at all (in college),’” Ruffin said.
Her experience showed her that, for students with disabilities, getting appropriate accommodations can be a make-it-or-break-it factor in college success.
Ruffin’s lack of knowledge about the accommodations process is not unusual according to a 2019 report from the National Center for College Students (NCCSD).
The report found that among students surveyed, 86 percent said they or their friends entered college without knowing that disabilities services and accommodations existed, and some students were confused about what disabilities qualified for accommodation.
Attention to the accommodations process was magnified during the 2020-2021 school year as the COVID-19 pandemic forced college courses online — a move that prompted some students who had not previously received accommodations to suddenly find they had difficulty learning remotely. In addition, some students who already had accommodations needed to have them altered for online learning.
For some, it was a window into the world where their peers with disabilities have existed for decades.
There were students who found they had trouble hearing or seeing clearly in online classes so requests for captioning and permission to record lectures increased. Other students found that, without a structured classroom environment, their attention wandered. Some experienced mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety while working in the isolated environment.
Those factors prompted an increased demand for services on some campuses and resistance from some professors who were already struggling themselves with learning the technology to teach online.
At Temple University, Kit Aronoff, an assistive technology specialist in the Disability Services and Resources Department, has seen an increased demand for services during the pandemic.
“I personally have done more intakes with students with ADHD and learning disabilities during the pandemic than I did prior to the pandemic. We're just hearing from those students a lot more because they're all just really struggling,” she said.
Aronoff said her department altered previously existing accommodations to ensure remote learning worked for students. Sometimes this meant creating or employing accommodations that ordinarily wouldn’t apply to in-person settings. For example, students who were blind were permitted to keep their cameras off. Other times it means a modified attendance policy for students with mental health conditions or for students who experience chronic migraines.
Some of these accommodations were a major source of pushback with faculty, Aronoff said.
From left to right: Makala Ruffin, Angelina Baker, and Destiney Osterritter
Reporting disabilities and getting accommodations
The list of disabilities students have reported to colleges is wide-ranging and includes physical disabilities, autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, mental health conditions and chronic illnesses. University officials report that mental health conditions are among the most commonly reported and that the number has been growing since the onset of the pandemic.
Common accommodations include permission to record lectures, the use of assistive technology, extended time on tests, the ability to take tests in a quiet environment, the assignment of note takers and readers, and the removal of physical barriers.
To receive accommodations, college students with disabilities must reach out to campus disability resource offices to disclose their disability and request accommodations. Certain documentation from doctors and therapists will be requested as well as tests given by the college offices.
After the process is complete, a list of approved accommodations is issued to a student’s professors. The student’s disability is not shared with the professor.
Catherine Getchell, director of the Office of Disability Resources at Carnegie Mellon University, said if all pertinent documentation is provided, the process generally takes about a week. But it can take longer if some documentation from students is missing.
If students don’t report their disabilities, they are not entitled to accommodations by professors. And if they are late in applying and receiving accommodations, they are not retroactive. That means students cannot retake exams or submit assignments that have already been completed.
Some, but not all, high schools alert students with Individualized Education Programs and 504 plans to the fact that they won’t have automatic access to services and accommodations in college and some are proactive in helping with the transition process.
But too often, students are either unaware or late in getting the process started or get bogged down in its administration. The NCCSD study found that while some students reported their disability services offices were helpful, others found the process to be burdensome and not easy to access.
Even when public schools provide transition services to students enrolled in special education, “that doesn’t mean the person guiding you through that process knows what they are doing,” said Annie Tulkin, director of Accessible Education, an organization that helps students with physical disabilities and health problems transition to higher education.
“There is a gulf between what high school folks know about how accommodations are enacted in college,” said Tulkin, the former associate director of the Academic Resource Center at Georgetown University.
Ruffin said while she received all of the accommodations she needed at East Allegheny High School and had easy access to staff who handled her needs, she does not remember getting any counseling from the high school staff about how to access services in college.
The first time she recalled seeing a reference to registering with the Pitt Disability and Resources Office was during her orientation activities and then again on a course syllabus at the beginning of the semester. But because she started late and was unsure of the process, her accommodations did not start quickly.
“It was hard to advocate for myself,” Ruffin said.
When her academic struggles became overwhelming, the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, where Ruffin has a counselor, connected her with Pittsburgh-based Evolve Coaching. The Evolve staff helped her to get the appropriate accommodations and worked with her on time management skills, she said.
“Now I get readers and a quiet place to take a test, note takers and suggestions to help me.” Ruffin said.
Shania Fields outside of the CCAC Allegheny Campus.
Early preparations work best
At the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, senior Angelina Baker, 18, worked this spring with transition coordinator Victoria Vitullo to connect with the University of Pittsburgh’s Disability Resources and Services office. Vitullo has helped her to establish a relationship with disability specialist Chad Jurica.
Baker, who plans to attend Pitt in the fall, said she was born profoundly deaf and uses assistive technology to help her hear. She also uses American Sign Language (ASL).
“Chad and I are already addressing any barriers that would occur in the dormitory. Some examples are: flashing fire alarms, flashing doorbell for when people knock on the door, etc,” Baker said in an email.
“My Office of Vocational Rehabilitation counselor is buying me a vibrating alarm to wake up to. I will be provided ASL interpreters for accessing anything that is related to the university. I would also use CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation), which is a real time captioning device,” Baker wrote.
In addition, the transition department and Baker’s teachers at WPSD have role-played difficult situations that she might encounter as she moves forward with her education.
“For instance, I prefer to have groups of three people when I’m going out in public so I can engage and understand the conversation without feeling lost,” wrote Baker. She’s also learned to teach friends how to use Google’s voice-to-text app to translate group conversations for her.
Among the majors Baker is considering are biomedicine, computer science and neurology and general medicine.
Transition services are also paying off for Shania Fields, 20, who has been enrolled in the Pittsburgh Public Schools CITY Connections program and taking courses at the Allegheny Campus of Community College of Allegheny County, CITY Connections is a transition program available to Pittsburgh students enrolled in the district’s special education program from ages 18-21. Fields entered the program after finishing classes at Brashear High School. Through the program, Fields has taken PPS classes that teach her skills she will need for college and employment in a CITYConnections classroom located on the CCAC campus.
“I was diagnosed with autism. I’ve had it since I was two. I have a hard time with communicating with people I don’t recognize,” Fields said.
She’s worked to improve her communication skills and writing skills, in particular how to write effective emails, and how to use online management systems used for courses. She’s also improved her social skills by participating in role playing with her teachers.
“With English 101, I sent (the professor) tons of emails saying ‘I need help with this assignment’ and ‘Where do I go from here?’” Fields said.
Fields said among her accommodations are extra time for exams and the ability to take them in a quiet area.
Fields graduates from Pittsburgh Public Schools this month. She’s already earned 12 credits at CCAC, where she plans to continue taking classes in the physical therapy assistant program.
Making accommodations work
The goal of providing accommodations is to help remove obstacles for students with disabilities so they have full access to a higher education.
The accommodations provided cannot substantially alter a course, nor can they make up for a student’s academic weaknesses.
But they can be individualized to meet specific needs and provide solutions outside of the most standard provisions.
Thomas Cortina, associate dean for undergraduate programs and a teaching professor in the School of Computer Science at CMU recalled an unusual situation during his first year of teaching there. He had a student with a sensitivity to whiteboard markers. “It would actually make the student sick,” Cortina said.
His solution was to replace whiteboards in any classroom the student would attend with blackboards. Cortina did the same in his office. In addition, the student was directed to use an entry and exit to academic buildings that kept them away from whiteboards being used in other classes.
In another situation at CMU, Assistant Teaching Professor Michael Taylor,also in the School of Computer Science, noticed a student who used a wheelchair had stopped attending help sessions for his course. It turned out it was difficult for the student to make it to the sessions because of winter weather and because she sometimes encountered debris on campus sidewalks. In response, Taylor started to livestream the help sessions in the fall of 2019.
Cortina and Taylor are known for being especially vigilant in providing accommodations for their students, Getchell said. Online reviews by students confirm this.
Of the approximately 1,100 students who report disabilities to CMU, about half report having a primary mental health disability, with anxiety and depression being the most prevalent, Getchell said.
Taylor said he developed his empathetic approach to teaching by modeling himself after professors who helped him through tough moments as he earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer science and his masters and PhD degrees in robotics.
Another role model for Taylor is his mother, who struggled in school because she had dyslexia and later became a teacher in order to help other students with disabilities.
“I acknowledge the fact that everyone has a different set of strengths and weaknesses and everyone has a different approach to learning,” Taylor said.
When it comes to helping students deal with the pressure and anxiety that comes with attending a highly competitive university, he draws on his own experience.
“For some of them, I have a pretty good idea of what it feels like to be as anxious as they are or to be as different as the college environment can make them feel,” Taylor said.
Both professors also said they welcome the opportunity to find a solution to a problem rather than resisting student requests. They also encourage students who appear to be struggling with issues to meet with the Office of Disability Resources.
Cortina said he addresses disability needs on the first day of his classes. “I say ‘If you’ve had something in the past that impacted your learning you may feel you will be able to manage it yourself. But please talk to me if the disability is impacting your learning,” Cortina said.
CMU's Director Disability Resources Catherine said about 8 percent of students on her campus report a disability. (Photo by Michael Henninger/CMU)
Resistance to accommodations
The NCCSD report cites faculty members who are uninformed about accommodations, who push back against them or who don’t respond to requests as barriers for students with disabilities.
Getchell, who is blind, experienced a professor who did not make her accommodations a priority when she was an undergraduate at Yale.
“The professor had told me, maybe a week or so before the exam, that she couldn’t get the exam to the disability resources office to put in braille because she had other students she needed to focus on,” Getchell said. “I think the disability resources office ended up doing a rush job on getting the exam brailled at the last minute. I don’t remember showing up for the exam and it not being ready. It was just a hindrance.”
The report said students with “invisible” disabilities such as mental health diagnoses or medical conditions are more likely to have their accommodations questioned by professors.
“If someone is in a wheelchair, that’s obvious. But if someone has an invisible disability then they aren’t believed,” Tulkin said.
A common resistance from professors is against the recording of their lectures. They worry that it will infringe on their intellectual property rights if students post the lectures publicly.
Michael Bérubé, a professor of literature at Penn State University, said an easy solution is to have students sign a written agreement that prevents them from sharing the recordings. Bérubé has taught and written about disability studies and is the father of son with Down Syndrome, who has also written about.
Sometimes incidents of professor pushback to accommodations lead to lawsuits against universities.
Getchel said at CMU she sometimes has to bring in representatives from the university’s Office of General Counsel to have a joint meeting with professors to say, “this is how it’s going to be.”
Tulkin said some professors simply don’t understand their responsibility to students with disabilities. “Most colleges don’t require training on ADA implementation even though professors are sometimes on the frontline of these issues,” Tulkin said.
Tulkin said students with unpredictable flare-ups of conditions sometimes have the hardest time getting accommodations from professors. Most accommodation sheets recommend that students give notice as to when they need flexibility, but can’t always do so which can be frustrating to a professor.
“People are used to things like giving extra time. That’s easy. But if you need flexibility in attendance or extensions for assignments that requires a lot more," Tulkin said.
Carlow University student Destiney Osterritter initially had a positive experience when she started classes on campus in fall 2019.
Osterritter was born with arthrogryposis, a condition that causes stiffness and muscle weakness in her arms and legs and leaves her with limited motion in both. She uses a wheelchair and writes by holding a long-handled spoon in her mouth and tapping the keys on her laptop.
While on campus, she received both the physical and academic accommodations she needed. When classes moved online in March 2020, she had some difficulty keeping up with her coursework as she described in this story in Unabridged Press. But with extra time allotted by her professors, she was able to complete her courses.
But, during the spring 2021 semester, Osterritter ran into resistance when she asked for extra time on her weekly set of homework problems in a statistics course. To write out her statistics problems, Destiney held an electronic pen in her mouth and did her work on a tablet.
In previous semesters, extra time was an approved accommodation for Osterritter. The professor resisted because they posted an answer key for all students at the same time each week. Giving an extension to Osterritter meant she would be able to access the answer key before she handed in her assignments.
“I don’t even know if my accommodations are going to apply since she posts the answer keys the next morning (after the assignments are due). So what do you do for people who need extra time to do things?” Osterritter said in late February.
Complicating the situation was the fact that Osterritter’s accommodations for the semester were late in coming because of an administrative mix-up. As she negotiated with the statistics professor, Osterritter said she fell behind in work for all of her courses. She then developed a medical complication that caused her to withdraw from the semester in April.
CMU professors Thomas Cortina and Michael Taylor think outside of the box to come up with accommodations for students. (Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)
CMU’s Taylor and Cortina and Penn State’s Berube said a commitment to thinking outside of the box and being flexible can solve most accommodation problems. That commitment was especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic when many students were working in high-stress environments off-campus.
“Is there anyone in this pandemic that hasn’t needed more time for anything?” Berube said.
In situations such as the one Osterritter encountered, Berube suggested the professor could give all students an extra day before the answer key was posted.
Taylor and Cortina said they understood the need for the rest of the students to move forward to keep the momentum of the course going and make sure all content is covered.
Cortina, who negotiates accommodations between faculty members and students in his position as dean, said that situation also could have been handled by instituting an honor code contract with the student in which she would vow to not look at the answers during her grace period. Such contracts have worked at CMU.
Taylor said in such cases he would create a shorter problem set for the student — but one that covered the essential elements of the lesson. “If we had a student who was physically unable to complete the work, we would figure out ways to give them fewer problems but they would touch on more of the concepts at once," Taylor said. “We would reduce the volume without necessarily reducing the content,” Taylor said.
Cortina said much of working through accommodations with students comes down to basic empathy.
“We kind of put ourselves in their shoes as much as we can. I don’t have the disabilities they have. But I want them to have a fair shot at the course.” ✹
This story was made possible through a fellowship from the Education Writers Association.
Mary Niederberger covers education for the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Atiya Irvin-Mitchell contributed to this story.
Edited and Produced by Brittany Hailer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (PINJ) exists to provide coverage of the issues that directly affect our local communities and the people who live, work and go to school in them. Our journalists strive to provide a particular focus on the inequities in our systems.
© 2021 Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism