Whenever you get a syllabus in college, read it! It’s highly likely that you’ve seen a blurb or section about disability services for students. Your teacher may have even pointed this section out in the first class session and informed your class that you will need a letter of accommodation if you need to be accommodated for a disability. Most students overlook this part of the syllabus, even students with valid disabilities. However, as students, you have so few rights in class over your grades. Sure, you can appeal to the dean or your academic advisor, but oftentimes, the student’s claims are overlooked, especially when the student neglected to get this letter. A disability is the one area not to overlook because you have enforceable rights!

Why Bother Learning About Disability Services?

If students were really disabled, they would just get the letter and it’s a done deal, right?

First of all, any student claiming disability needs to apply for a new letter from their school’s office of disability each semester. This is done because some disabilities can be temporary. Secondly, a lot of students with valid disabilities often feel that they are completely functional and independent. The problem usually occurs at the end-of-the-semester grading, or something drastic happens mid-semester and they start missing assignments or failing assessments. They may realize that they overestimated their abilities and now put themselves in hot water as they have lost their rights to accommodation under the ADA Amendments Act of 2008.

What is a Disability?

One of the most common misconceptions of disabilities is that it is clearly defined in the law. The definition is much looser than you would think. So continue reading to find out whether you could be eligible to receive accommodations under this law. Check out the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 for yourself below.

Here is how the amendment defines a disability:

“SEC. 3. DEFINITION OF DISABILITY. “As used in this Act:
“(1) DISABILITY.—The term ‘disability’ means, with respect to an individual—
“(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual;
“(B) a record of such an impairment; or
“(C) being regarded as having such an impairment (as described in paragraph (3)).
“(A) IN GENERAL.—For purposes of paragraph (1), major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.
“(B) MAJOR BODILY FUNCTIONS.—For purposes of paragraph (1), a major life activity also includes the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.
(3) REGARDED AS HAVING SUCH AN IMPAIRMENT.—For purposes of paragraph (1)(C):
“(A) An individual meets the requirement of ‘being regarded as having such an impairment’ if the individual establishes that he or she has been subjected to an action prohibited under this Act because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity. “(B) Paragraph (1)(C) shall not apply to impairments that are transitory and minor. A transitory impairment is an impairment with an actual or expected duration of 6 months or less.

In summary, as long as you have a physical or mental disability that lasts longer than a 6-month duration, you should consult your healthcare provider, fill out the form, and make a request for a reasonable accommodation in your classes.

What is a Letter of Accommodation?

A letter of accommodation is a document you receive (after meeting eligibility requirements of a disability) from the Office of Disability Services at your college/ university. The letter details the reasonable accommodations you can receive for each class you are enrolled in for a period of one semester (usually).

Requesting the Letter of Accommodation

Students are usually responsible to go through several requirements to get the letter:

  1. Fill out a request form for the services each semester.
  2. Get a statement or document from a health care provider detailing the disability. These need to be current documents usually dated within the last 6-12 months.
  3. Have an approved disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Amendment Act (ADAAA) of 2008 (see below).
  4. Have the ability to meet with a representative of the Office of Disability Services. Check your college’s website to find out who to contact to schedule an appointment. If you are a distance student, you may be able to discuss over the phone and email your request form and documents.
back to school
Source: Arizona State University

Student Experiences

I advised several students who were in the unique situation of having a disability but afraid to speak out about it. Hopefully, their stories will demonstrate how important getting this letter is so that you don’t also make the same mistakes. All names have been changed to protect identities.

Patty’s Story

Patty had only one workable hand. Her other hand was completely paralyzed from an injury during her birth. Patty was studying computer science which involves a lot of time typing up commands in different programming languages and manipulating the computer mouse. Moreover, she was pregnant and soon giving birth (not that being pregnant was a disability, it just further exacerbated her situation). It was hard for her to find the time to complete complicated projects using one hand to type and coordinate with team members. Patty’s teachers would not even delay project deadlines when she delivered her newborn mid-semester.

Unfortunately, Patty was one of the students who did not feel she was disabled in any way. (Hey, more power to her!) As a close friend to Patty, I advised her each semester to seek out a letter of accommodation from the disability office. Yet, I find that at the beginning of each semester, students get this feeling of I can handle this like she was experiencing. Each semester, Patty performed no better than the previous semester. Patty was almost kicked out of the program at one point, but was given one chance to continue and took it.

Finally, Patty graduated last fall. However, it was a bittersweet ending. In general, employers are looking for high GPAs especially in computer science. They want the best and the brightest. Now, Patty is really bright, but she has very slim chances of getting a job in her beloved field and even worse chances of getting into grad school.

Nevertheless, Patty is a go-getter. Currently, she is trying to spearhead her own business, but her studies were clearly a dark time in her past.

Teachers can be so cruel.

In the next story, a student with a mental disorder loses his brother in a car crash and gets no sympathy from his teachers either.

Andrew’s Story

Andrew was typically a happy individual. He had just lost a lot of weight after having bariatric surgery and felt like his life was moving in a good direction. He wasn’t the most studious of students, but he did his best in his courses. His disability was commonly-diagnosed ADHD, and he could not focus well on his exams. His exams were hard though. For example, he would get 20 long questions on a test and would only have 20 minutes to complete the test. In my opinion, you’d have to be a computer to recall and write down information that quickly.

Anyway, Andrew’s semester grades were falling already due to his short attention span and getting behind on assignments. Suddenly, he receives a call that his brother was killed in a car accident during a trip abroad. Almost immediately, he fell into depression and shut down for a few weeks; forgetting his coursework completely (quite understandable). However, he gathered some strength to contact his teachers to ask for an extension with some prompting from me. All of his teachers seemed very unsympathetic and unwilling to make an accommodation for him except one who gave him a second chance at an assignment but with a major loss in points.

Andrew’s grades suffered that semester. If he had gotten a letter of accommodation, it would have helped him when he needed it the most. He would have been able to get an extension, or already have had extensions in place.

The next semester, he actually went and got the letter. Similar to the previous semester, he had a teacher who was giving very short timeframes for online quizzes. However, armed with the letter, he emailed it to his teacher, and with no hesitation, she gave him additional time as stipulated in the letter. He was able to get all A’s that semester bring up his GPA somewhat.

The only time Andrew was given a problem about his letter of accommodation was when a professor tried to work it out with him. Upon seeing the letter, the professor asked if he felt he would get enough time with the already given time frames for the rest of the class. Without a staunch advocate at his side, he was easily swayed to give up his rights. Even so, I advised him to discuss this with his teacher again (just in case) and reserve testing sessions with additional time at college’s testing center.

In the end, Andrew lost points on his GPA when his life got shaken up. However, now that he knows to get a letter of accommodation each semester and not give up on his rights stipulated in the letter, he is set for graduation this fall.

Frank’s Story

Frank was studying his graduate degree in computer science. Since his early adult years, he had lived with a herniated disc in his spine that acted up when he sat for too long. With computer science assignments, Frank was often confined to a chair to create computer programs. In any case, Frank did not feel that he had a disability even though he had loads of paperwork indicating the severity of his affliction.

In the midst of his second semester of grad school, his wife gave birth. Not only did this mean he had to spend more time helping his wife and baby, but his back started to flare up from carrying the baby and other related stress, and it became almost impossible to sit in a chair without feeling pain. He spoke to his teachers about his unique situation, and not one teacher would make any exception in his case – even though he also had a newborn baby at home. His grades suffered that semester, and Frank was put on academic probation.

However, he still did not learn his lesson in the next semester. Still under the impression that he was invincible and that he could bear the pain of sitting for prolonged periods, Frank did not attempt to get a letter of accommodation from the disability office at his university. A letter arrived in the mail telling him that if he did not pull his grades up in the following semester that he would be dismissed from the program. He was still not persuaded to get the letter of accommodation.

It was the following semester that his infant began experiencing a health issue that demanded hours of intense physical therapy. The time he needed to spend with his infant in therapy was a huge loss to his already struggling study time. Even when faced with piles of medical records demonstrating why he was not able to complete his assignments on time, his professors were unsympathetic and he was subsequently dismissed from the program.

Dismissal from his program was a huge blow to his professional qualifications and career. Frank was one semester short of graduating from the program and lost all chances to join the program at a later time.

Legal Issues for Colleges

The University of Minnesota has a page of links for more reading on litigation involving disability rights in colleges and universities.

For more information on your rights, see this PDF published by the California’s Protection & Advocacy System.

Moral of The Story

Students who already feel their disability does not technically prevent them from living a functional life often face problems when more obstacles get thrown into the arena. Pregnancy, birth, surgery, children, death in the family, illness — these things happen every day. Professors hear it all the time, and it’s often the case that students will get very little sympathy about it. Therefore, appealing to your teacher’s empathy will be futile in this respect. However, a letter of accommodation can almost guarantee you will be able to get accommodation when it’s necessary.

My advice is as follows: if you have a disability, get proof and get the letter of accommodation. Then show it to your teacher as early in the semester as you can.

What Stops Students from Getting Letters of Accommodation?

Several reasons factor into students’ decisions not to get letters of accommodation.

  1. Lack of a healthcare provider See if you can see a physician or health care provider at a low-cost facility. Alternatively, contact a healthcare facility that you were a patient at to see if they can provide the paperwork on your behalf without a visit.
  2. Laziness – Okay, we are talking about your future here. Every grade you get matters. One failing grade can be the red flag that loses you an acceptance to grad school. Many employers also look at college transcripts, and low grades may be a factor in hiring someone else.
  3. Denying one’s own disability – Please refer to the definition of disability in this article. Teachers may seem really nice on the first day of class, but remember that a good first impression of someone is not enough to not secure your success in the course. If you are on the fence, think of yourself as another person or a family member. Wouldn’t you want the best for that person? Overall, the process is not too complicated, and if you never want to actually use the accommodation provided, you don’t need to. Your professor certainly won’t point you out to the rest of the class.

Bottom Line

A letter of accommodation is just like insurance. It’s there for the unexpected. If you have any limitation at all and may for any reason need an accommodation, I recommend seeing the Office of Disabilities and getting a letter of accommodation.


What has your experience been if you got the letter of accommodation? Has it helped? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comment section below.

Yesterday, I published a post on the CLEP test. Did you know that CLEP tests offer accommodations for test takers as well? If you are planning to take one of these tests to get college credit, see this link on how to get accommodations for it.

Author: College Mamma

College Mamma is a professor who blogs for students. She is also a mother of two and a lover of coffee.