Q & A Regarding 2012 Documentation Guidance

September, 2012

Since its May 2012 release of “Supporting Accommodation Requests: Guidance on Documentation Practices,” AHEAD has received numerous comments and questions about the document itself and its implementation in higher education.  We are pleased with the level of dialogue the new Guidance has generated and see the discourse is important to the field’s evolving practices.  The following questions were submitted during the May teleconference and are answered here by a team of experienced professionals.    

  1. What is the sense of how institutional legal offices and OCR are responding to the new documentation guidelines?
    AHEAD benefited from legal counsel in drafting this Guidance.  The concepts presented in the document are well anchored to the law.  However, it is always a good idea to review external recommendations with institutional legal counsel.  We believe that most institutions of higher education will be advised by counsel that the AHEAD Guidance is congruent with changes in the law.

  1. Will the U.S. Departments of Education or Justice require that members use the AHEAD Guidance to develop institutional policy?  Will these agencies consider policies that reflect the AHEAD Guidance to meet the requirements of the law?
    We don’t believe that federal enforcement agencies will require use of AHEAD’s Guidance, or guidance from any other source, by institutions of higher education.  On the other hand, we do believe that institutions that establish policies reflective of the overall direction will find their policies consonant with the law and the expectations of enforcement agencies.  AHEAD’s Guidance is not legal advice and should not be read as such.    

  1. How can AHEAD members approach drafting new Website information for students so they understand institutional documentation needs?
    Determining accommodations requires an interactive process.  Since the amount and type of documentation required will depend on the individual situation and specific requests, institutions may choose not to itemize the specific documentation required of every student.  Website information will be helpful when it describes this flexibility and informs students of where and how to begin the conversation about accommodations.

  1. What guidance can you provide to support our internal procedures in making this shift?
    Members are rightly concerned that their internal practices be perceived as consistent and credible.   Achieving that goal comes by applying a consistent process rather than requiring identical information for each student.  Some disability service offices are developing decision trees, interview questions and flexible interview protocols to guide their internal decision-making and identify when additional information may be necessary. 

  1. Can testing entities still require copies of documentation for students to receive accommodations even when a school official has verified that proper documentation is on file?
    The amendments to the ADA and the new Title II and III regulations, including amendments and regulatory revisions, apply to all schools, testing companies and agencies and credentialing bodies.  Policies and procedures used by some high stakes testing entities are being challenged.  AHEAD will keep members up-to-date as information becomes available. 

    Good practice includes informing students that other institutions and/or test agencies may have different criteria for receive accommodations than required by that school.  In this way, students can make informed choices about gathering additional supporting documentation.  Neither of AHEAD’s prior guidance documents were adopted or implemented by standardized testing entities.  We don’t anticipate this Guidance will be adopted either.

  1. Is there a minimum set of documentation to be obtained for verification?
    No, the process is, and always should have been, individualized.  Members should request the information needed to understand the connection between the barrier described, the student’s disability and the requested accommodation.  When there is not adequate information to make a decision, additional documentation that is specifically tailored to providing what is missing for that particular student in that particular situation should be requested.

  1. Is there guidance as to a time period to retain documents for record-keeping purposes after a student is no longer active with the institution?
    This is dependent on state and institutional requirements.  Check on institutional records retention policies with legal counsel.

  1. What guidance do you have for updating documentation periodically for an active student, aside from documentation that needed to understand changes in a student’s disability?
    There is no need to “update” documentation for the sake of updating documentation. If changing circumstances no longer warrant accommodations – for example, a student’s temporary disability has completely resolved -- plan to meet with the student within a reasonable period of time to explore the changed situation.

  1. Can you tell me who wrote the new Guidance?
    Many professionals contributed to the design and content of the Guidance. The Board was instrumental in providing direction and feedback. AHEAD’s legal counsel provided consultation and guidance. 

  1. What is your guidance on documentation practices for students with ADHD?  We get a wide variety of documentation on ADHD from handwritten prescription pad notes to letters that contain a diagnosis but few details to formal reports.
    AHEAD Guidance applies to establishing coverage under federal disability civil rights protections not the diagnosis of specific conditions.  This question underscores AHEAD’s recommendation to engage in a truly interactive process.

  1. What about credibility with faculty if we use student self-report to support a request for accommodation?
    Disability resource personnel are the professionals charged by their institutions to respond to requests for accommodations based on disability.  AHEAD’s new Guidance does not necessitate a change in their relationship with faculty.  Exercise professional judgment as in the past. 

  1. Using the concepts presented in the new Guidance, what should professionals consider as they make accommodation determinations?
    Good professional practice should include the disability professional asking him or herself a number of questions.  Among them:
    1. Do I have a sufficient understanding of how the situation described results in a barrier given the student’s disability experience?
    2. How does that information line up with my professional experiences and knowledge, my observations and the interactions I’ve had with the student?
    3. Do I need to educate myself further about the condition involved, perhaps learning from my colleagues who have specific expertise?
    4. Does the information I’ve gotten from other sources help identify barriers for which accommodations are needed?
    5. Do I need further information, such as from a doctor or third party source, to fill in gaps?  Sometimes additional information will be needed, sometimes not. 
    6. Do I understand the structure of the course or activity for which accommodations have been requested?  This information helps to determine the reasonableness of an accommodation, i.e., are accommodations necessary due to the nature of the event, program or activity? Will the requested accommodation be either an undue burden or fundamentally alter the program or activity?

  1. Since the process of accommodation determination is now geared more towards an interview process between the student seeking accommodations and the disability resource staff, will there be some sort of guidance in what should be included in this interview process? 
    AHEAD will be offering a teleconferences on the interview process during its AHEAD to You series this fall.  The Standing Committee on Professional Development is also working on additional resources for the membership. However, your question suggests that professionals need a specific structure to follow.  We caution that the types of information professionals should seek from students should be driven by the student’s experience of disability, past use of accommodations, adaptive strategies and devices, etc. rather than by a “cookbook” approach.  The Guidance does not advocate a one-size-fits-all practice but pushes members to think more broadly. 

  1. How can we effectively respond to institutional perceptions that students with disabilities are receiving increasingly extreme and inappropriate exceptions to standards because of the broadened definition of disability?
    In our experience, perceptions are fostered by people, not statutes.  The 2008 changes to the ADA confirm Congress’ original intent to broadly protect people with disabilities from discrimination.  Academic standards and expectations do not change as a result of a broader application of disability rights law.  The reactions of students without disabilities have no place in accommodation decisions.  Students with disabilities have the same privacy rights as students without disabilities.  Concerns about student behavior and comportment, class attendance, etc., may be educational concerns, but generally have little, if any, relevance in determining civil rights protections afforded students with disabilities. 

    This question embeds many assumptions, including the notion that protecting students with disabilities’ rights requires “extreme” exceptions to standards.  It does not.  Over-statements and mischaracterizations of “other’s” rights has historically created and/or furthered division within society.  Protecting the rights of students with disabilities does not deny the rights of students without disabilities. (There is no cause of action for “reverse discrimination” under the ADA, for example.)  The misperception that affording rights to people with disabilities diminishes the rights of others is among those the ADA was intended to eradicate.

  1. Do you have any samples of documentation policies from postsecondary institutions we might use that are based on this new Guidance?
    The new Guidance represents professional guidance not specific guidelines.  Development of practices, rather than rigid policies, is really where the focus should be.  Practices that affirm information about the impairment, barriers encountered in a higher education setting and a student’s experience and accommodation history will come from a variety of sources.  The following statement from the Eastern Michigan University Website (http://www.emich.edu/drc/faq_student.php ) provides an example of communication that reflects this focus; there are others.

    “Because each person's situation is unique, the office simply asks that any interested student meet with us.  Documentation requirements vary by situation. The Disability Advisor will talk to the student about documentation during the initial conversation.  No student should delay meeting with the DRC out of concern for not having appropriate paperwork.”

  1. When the disability professional is called on to certify student eligibility with Learning Ally, Bookshare, Access Text, etc., how can we respond when “documentation” is not of the traditional nature?
    There are many aspects to role of disability resource professional; diagnostician is not typically one of them.  When you are asked to certify a student’s eligibility, what you are actually certifying is your professional judgment about the student’s need for accommodation, i.e., what information you gathered and the conclusions you reached.  If you have documentation that follows AHEAD’s Guidance, you should feel fully able to certify the student as eligible to receive accessible text services.