Creating Access for Students with Mental Health Disabilities Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How should the disability resource office determine reasonable accommodations for a student with a mental health or psychological disability?
A: Determining reasonable accommodations is an interactive process. The following should guide the conversation with the student and the thinking process of the disability resource provider:
- Does the student have a mental health condition?
- Is the barrier described related to the mental health condition?
- What are possible accommodations, modifications, or adjustments that might remove the barrier?
- Without these accommodations, would the student have meaningful access to the program, service, or activity?
- Would these accommodations compromise the essential elements of the course or program?
- Would these accommodations require a fundamental alteration in the nature of the program, service, or activity?
Q: What constitutes adequate documentation for a mental health, or psychological, disability?
A: Disability professionals who receive accommodation requests from students with mental health disabilities should review AHEAD’s Supporting Accommodation Requests: Guidance on Documentation Practices (http://ahead.org/learn/resources/documentation-guidance) for a general overview of how to approach the question of documentation. Consistent with ADA Amendment Act’s broadened definition of disability and its focus on considering accommodations rather than proving disability, documentation requirements should not be overly burdensome and should be used to understand the barriers the student might experience in the postsecondary setting. The following external documentation may be helpful:
- A diagnostic report by a licensed mental health professional describing manifestations of the student’s condition that might lead to barriers
- A listing of any current medications and how they might affect the student, such as slowing thought processes or causing fatigue
- Information that describes the student's current situation. Depending on your conversation with the student and the nature of the accommodation request, information that is only a few years old is most often appropriate. However, if a student has been recently diagnosed, changed medicines recently, or had another recent change in a significant life situation, it may be helpful to update the information or request permission to speak with the treating professional. Alternatively, if the student’s condition has been stable over many years and the request is for accommodations used successfully in the past, documentation which is older may be relevant and sufficient. The information posted at http://ahead.org/learn/resources/documentation-guidance/professional-guide may be useful in getting the most information from your conversation with the student.
Q: How should the disability resource provider communicate a student's accommodations to faculty?
A: There are several acceptable ways to communicate a student's accommodations to faculty. The three most common are:
- with a letter created by the disability resource office and hand-carried by the student to the faculty member or a pdf letter provided to the student and sent by the student to the faculty member;
- through an email from the disability resource office sent either to the student to hand-carry to the faculty member or to both the student and faculty member simultaneously; and
- through a data management program that allows secure sign-on by the faculty member and indicates the accommodations determined to be reasonable for the student.
The letter/faculty notification serves as a catalyst for discussion of how the accommodations will be delivered and provides information regarding the faculty role in implementing the accommodation(s). The notification also offers the opportunity for the faculty member to question the reasonableness of an accommodation if it might fundamentally alter course requirements. Disability resource providers should be open to these conversations to ensure consistent academic rigor for all students but should also critically examine the points made by the faculty to ensure they are not based on stereotype or inflexibility.
Some courses or programs require creative solutions and innovative accommodations. When this occurs, the disability resource provider should discuss options with the faculty member to clarify the essential elements of the course and think collaboratively about how to remove the barrier. The student should be brought into these conversations when his or her input is necessary in finding a reasonable solution, but care should be taken to not burden the student with responsibility to negotiate with faculty who is in an unequal power position and has a limited understanding of disability and accommodation.
Q: How should you respond to a faculty member who wants a disruptive student removed from his or her classroom? The faculty suspects that the student has a mental health disability.
A: This question can best be answered by first looking at general principles and then addressing the specific issues. Regardless of the reason for the disruptive behavior, it is critical that proper policies be in place to meet the needs of all students, including those with disabilities. The following administrative supports are needed:
- A clear, behavioral definition of appropriate student behavior and prohibited behaviors.
- A well-defined code of student conduct that will provide the structure for consistent and methodical interventions. An example from The Ohio State University is at: http://trustees.osu.edu/assets/files/RuleBook/CodeStudentConduct.pdf (retrieved September, 2016)
- Clear judicial affairs policies and procedures
- A designated administrative person responsible for upholding the campus code of conduct
All students, including those with mental health disabilities, are expected to meet the institutional code of student conduct. Students with disabilities may meet the code with or without accommodations. While students with psychological disabilities may display atypical behavior, such as unusual communication patterns or eye contact, social miscues, or perseverations, it is important that their neurodiverse behaviors not be misinterpreted as threatening, dangerous, or outside the expectations of the student code of conduct based on stereotype or simply because they are different. The disability resource provider should be ready to make an objective assessment of the behavior and to assist in identifying and implementing accommodations that could support the student in meeting the code of conduct.
Coming back to the original question: if a faculty member contacts the disability resource staff to request that a disruptive student be removed from class, the faculty should be advised that the student is subject to the same behavioral expectations as other students and that no student is removed from class without due process. The disability resource provider may want to ask about the problematic behavior to understand if it is based on fear or misunderstanding or represents a real issue and may also offer suggestions for resolution if familiar with the student. If the disability resource provider can suggest and assist in implementing an accommodation that relieves the problem behavior, the situation may be resolved. If not, the faculty member should be directed to follow the established procedure for handling student misconduct. The disability resource provider should remain engaged in order to work collaboratively to identify accommodations that could be put in place to support the student in meeting behavioral expectations.
Q: How should you handle requests for special residence hall assignments based upon the student's mental health disability?
A: Each request for housing accommodations, like all accommodations, should be handled individually and in consideration of both the student’s and the campus residence hall’s unique characteristics.
A common request for accommodation for students with mental health disabilities is for a single room. Depending on the availability of single rooms on your campus, it may be possible for the student simply to register for a single room as every student can. However, many campuses do not have a large inventory of these rooms and so an accommodation is the answer if having a roommate would result in a disability-related barrier for a student. In assessing whether this is the case, consider carefully the reason the student is giving for the request. For example, if the request is only to provide a private space for study free of distraction, the request may not be reasonable. In general, the primary purpose of the dorm room is not as a study space, as the campus provides a number of other quiet study spaces that the student can use. Therefore, the student would have access without the accommodation, making it unnecessary. However, if after exploration of the situation with residence life staff and the student, you determine that the student will be denied access without a single room, the institution should grant the request.
Providing a single room to a student may have financial costs for the institution. However, that is not a reason to deny the accommodation. Rather, the mandate against charging for accommodations applies here, and the student should be charged only rate for half a double room: the same rate the student would pay if an accommodation were not necessary. There are I several resolutions that support this approach; here is one example:
OCR Case No. 02-11-2062
State University of New York at Potsdam
Q: Is a reduced course load considered a reasonable and appropriate accommodation for a student with a mental health disability? If so, how will that affect their eligibility for such things as housing, participation in student organizations, financial aid and health insurance?
A: This question addresses the issue of whether a student can be considered “full-time” when carrying less than the requisite number of credits. Many institutions define a minimum of 12 credit hours as full-time status. It also implies the question of whether institutional policies are subject to accommodation: they are.
There are two aspects to the question; the first deals solely with your institution and the rules it sets forth. In general, any rule that the institution has made, it can bend. With that in mind, if a full-time class schedule presents a barrier for a student with a mental health disability, the institution can modify its policies and consider the student "full-time” with fewer credit hours. This would allow the student to live on campus, participate in student organizations, hold office, etc. despite not carrying the typically required credit hours. Offices affected by this decision (e.g., residence life, dean of students, registrar) should be notified of the accommodation so they can implement a plan to supersede the standard policy for the student.
The second aspect of the question deals with rules or policies not established by the institution. This includes financial aid and health care coverage.
- Financial Aid. Colleges and universities can modify their standard policies and award scholarships that they control, such as private funds, to students whose requirement for full-time status has been modified as an accommodation. However, financial aid funds from federal sources are governed by federal policy and cannot be modified by the institution. In most cases, these scholarships and grants include provisions to adjust funding based on the number of credit hours the student is carrying. Disability resource staff can assist students in exploring funding sources for other scholarships to see if flexibility in the full-time requirement is possible.
- Health Care Coverage. Most health insurance companies define "full-time" very concretely. They officially verify credit hours for covered students from each institution to ensure their terms are met. If a health insurance company decides to research a claim, the student's enrollment records for any or all semesters of attendance could be subpoenaed. Institutions that report students considered "full-time" with fewer than the standard number of credit hours to insurance companies as full-time, they must ensure that the administration is fully involved in the decision and aware of the practice so that the institution can respond to any questions that may be asked. As disability service providers, we should work closely with our registrars and other administrators to assist them in understanding the need for adjustments to university policy as a reasonable accommodation.
**These FAQs were originally written by Linda Cooper and Barbara Blacklock, Mental Health SIG Co-Chairs. They were updated in 2016 to reflect changes in legal guidance and the field.