Research You Can Use

What Keeps Students with Disabilities from Using Accommodations in Postsecondary Education?

 A Qualitative Review

Citation: Lyman, M., Beecher, M., Griner, D., Brooks, M., Call, J., & Jackson, A. (2016). What keeps students with disabilities from using accommodations in postsecondary education? A qualitative review.  Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 29(2), 123-140.

Why is This Study Important?

Accommodations at the college level are designed to provide equal access and “level the playing field” for students with disabilities.  Previous studies have documented that use of accommodations can promote student success and enhance graduation rates. But there are a number of barriers that students face in requesting and using accommodations. Some of the challenges include new roles and responsibilities placed on the student to disclose, provide sufficient documentation of the disability, and navigate institutional requirements. Yet some students who have successfully navigated the system and have been “approved” for campus accommodations choose not to use those accommodations.  Is this because they don’t need the accommodations or are there other factors that are influencing students in this decision to not use these services?

A team of researchers from Brigham Young University and San Juan Counseling Center in Utah conducted a study to explore this question.  They wanted to know more about the experiences of students with disabilities who had chosen not to use their accommodations.

Research Methods in a Nutshell

The research team conducted individual interviews with students to get a more in depth understanding of students’ experiences. They developed a semi-structure interview protocol to guide their conversations in a consistent way, and spoke with 16 students at a large private university. Each of the students had been approved for accommodations by the campus disability resource office, but had chosen not to use one or more of those accommodations during the academic year. The students reported a range of mental health, cognitive, physical, neurological, and sensory disabilities. The interviews were audio taped and transcribed.  The transcribed interviews were then analyzed using a systematic process of identifying and confirming recurrent themes that came up in the conversations.  The researchers also gave student participants the opportunity to review the themes and give additional feedback.

Some Key Findings

                Six main themes.  The overarching themes that came out of the student interviews included the following: (1) Desire for self-sufficiency, (2) Desire to avoid negative social reactions, (3) Insufficient knowledge, (4) Quality and usefulness of DSS and accommodations, (5) Negative experiences with professors, and (6) Fear of future ramifications. In response to the original research questions, the researchers found that sometimes students don’t need the accommodation or don’t find the specific accommodation useful. Other times however, there are factors internal to the student or in the surrounding environment that are creating challenges and warrant more investigation. A few of these factors are highlighted.

                Self-accommodating. Some students shared that it was important to them to be independent and only use accommodations as a backup. Other students explained they had developed their own strategies for “leveling the playing field” such as going directly to professors for help or working with classmates.

                Not wanting to be treated differently.  Students did not want to be singled out or perceived as taking advantage of the system. Some expressed concern that providing accommodations placed a burden on disability resource professionals, faculty, and administrators.

Not disabled enough.” Some students questioned whether they had a “real” disability that warranted accommodation.  Students who expressed this concern were more likely to be students with emotional or learning disabilities. 

                Burdensome procedures. Some students described excessive requirements for attaining accommodation letters or making logistical arrangements for accommodations. Others mentioned occasional pushback from faculty, either to forgo accommodations or to use a different accommodation.

                Fear of future ramifications. Many students felt that using accommodations in college might have some negative long-term impact.  They were afraid that asking for accommodations could strain their relationships with faculty and impact future job opportunities. Some students expressed concern that they might be using accommodations as a crutch and missing the opportunity to build needed skills.


The researchers identified some possible limitations of the study. They noted that the participants were all White/Caucasian and all attended the same large, private, religious university.  With an average age of 25, the student participants in the study were older than the average age of many undergraduates.  These factors should be taken into account as you consider how well the findings may generalize to your own campus setting.

Actionable Steps

In campus disability resource offices, we often say it’s the students’ choice if they want to use the accommodations they are eligible to receive. This study helps us dig a little deeper in thinking about the reasons behind that choice. As you work with students, there are many opportunities to have conversations around legal requirements, learning strategies, and how accommodations are or are not working.  The findings of this study suggest providing this kind of sounding board for students is important.

Many of the factors leading to decisions about whether to use accommodations could be viewed as related to student identity development. Does your campus have a student group for students with disabilities?  The opportunity for conversation and advocacy with peers increases students’ awareness about the role of campuses in providing accessible environments for all students. Working with a variety of fellow students provides legitimacy to diverse forms of disability.  Hosting campus speakers with disabilities, showcasing inclusive technology, or promoting disability in campus diversity initiatives for example, promote disability awareness as a positive contribution to a diverse campus community. This is an important backdrop in assuring students their disability is “legitimate,” their accommodations are not an inconvenience, and using accommodations does not preclude future job opportunities.

This study provides one more reminder of the importance of examining our own internal work in disability resources offices.  Are any of our procedures burdensome for students?  How can we refine them to make the process more seamless? What faculty members or departments continue to need “refresher training” about accommodation procedures and universal design?

Want to Know More?

Want to read more about the six themes identified in this research and what the students had to say? You can access the article at: Scroll to issue 2 and select your format of choice (PDF, Word, mp3, or Daisy).