This is how the accommodations process works: first, you spend about 11 years living with your unbearable aunt and uncle and your spoiled cousin. You spend a lot of time in the cupboard under the stairs. Then a bunch of mysterious letters start arriving. Your uncle, who’s kind of a terrible person, decides to take you and his wife and son to a rocky island, but then a half-giant comes and bangs down the door and –
Wait, no. That’s the plot of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. However, this is not completely off topic, because there is a magical letter that comes at the end of the accommodations process. And just cause Harry Potter probably isn’t a metaphor for disability doesn’t mean I can’t include a few gifs from the movies to make this post as entertaining as possible.
Step 1: Get acquainted with The People In Charge.
These people will work at the disability services office, but it might be called something else at your school. It shouldn’t be that hard to find, and you’ll probably see the word “accessibility” or “disability” in the name. Or both, if you’re lucky.
A few examples:
- Student Accessibility and Support Services (Kenyon College)
- Disability & Accessibility Resources (Reed College)
- Office of Accessible Education (Stanford University)
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use the term “disability services office” throughout this post.
Step 2: Prove that you’re legit.
Legitimately disabled, that is. There are two main elements of this yes-I-actually-do-have-a-real-disability-so-please-help-me process: providing professional documentation and filling out forms.
The requirements for professional documentation are more consistent across colleges. The forms you have to fill out may vary, and there will be a post with some sample responses coming soon to theaters near you.
In this case, a professional is a qualified clinician or medical provider who has worked with you enough to understand your disability/ies and your functional limitations. These documents will explain how the professional knows you – have you been seeing them for years? Did you just get a diagnostic assessment? Are they a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, etc.?
The professional will identify your disability/ies using a DSM or ICD diagnostic classification. They will explain how the diagnosis was made. For example, the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule is considered the gold standard for making a diagnosis of autism. Basically, the professional needs to demonstrate that you actually do meet criteria for the diagnosis.
The letter will also explain your history with regards to disability, as well as the significance, or severity, of the disability. This part may include a summary of accommodations you’ve had in the past, such as an IEP or a 504 plan. The professional will then describe your functional limitations – i.e., how does your disability affect your functioning, and how will that be relevant in a college setting? After this, the professional will make a recommendation as to what accommodations you need to succeed in college. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get the accommodations listed in the letter, but schools definitely take these recommendations into account.
Forms that you fill out
This part of the paperwork varies from school to school, and you should be able to get the forms from the disability services office with relative ease. You can expect questions like…
- Please describe your disability.
- How does your disability affect your ability to participate in academics/live in a dorm/function on a day-to-day basis?
- What accommodations are you requesting?
- How will those accommodations help you?
My two main recommendations here are to a) fill out the forms honestly and in detail and b) not stress too much about it. The whole point of this process is to support you, and the more the office knows about your disability, the better they can support you. All this information is protected under HIPAA, so it’s confidential (with the potential exception of mandatory reporting). While it’s important to be clear and specific in your writing, this isn’t a test. The goal is to help other people help you.
Meeting your disability advisor and getting your accommodations letter
Once you’ve filled out the forms and submitted your documentation, you’ll meet with your disability advisor, a person who works at the disability services office and whose job it is to figure out what accommodations you’ll get and help you implement them. I was really anxious before this first meeting, but I got some advice from a few friends who had graduated college and been through this process. They told me not to worry, that an advisor’s whole job is to advise people, and that my school already accepted me, meaning that they want me to succeed.
The precise opposite of this.
As it turned out, my friends were 100% right. When I walked into my disability advisor’s office last fall, I saw that she had a mini “ableism bingo” poster hanging by her desk, and liked her immediately. And then she listened to me as I told her about my disabilities, said all the right things, helped me figure out what accommodations would help me, and wrote a magical letter to get me said accommodations. I even got a sticker from the Office of Accessible Education receptionist. It says, “Office of Accessible Education.” Maybe not the most creative design, but who am I to complain about a free sticker?
I very much hope that you, the disabled student reading this, will have an equally positive experience of accommodations. Unfortunately, not all people do, but the good news is that there are other resources out there, like this post, that can help fill in some of the gaps. Worse comes to worst, you can always try to transfigure your disability advisor’s unbearable son into a pig.
Okay, maybe not.
The magical letter
Once you’ve met with your disability advisor, you’ll receive an official letter that lists the accommodations you’ve been granted. The main purpose of this letter is to communicate with professors and implement accommodations in class. (Here’s an example of what that letter might look like.) If you have accommodations related to housing or course load, your disability services office will probably figure those out with other administrators. Your main job is to advocate for yourself when communicating with professors and to make sure you buy The Standard Book of Spells by Miranda Goshawk, not Miranda Gottschalk. The former is a well-respected witch, while the latter is a conman who is notorious for writing books of hexes that so closely resemble legitimate textbooks that unsuspecting first-years buy them and then end up accidentally making their feathers fry, rather than fly, during their first Charms lesson. Be careful out there.