Office of Specialized Services (OSS)
OSS Faculty Resources
Students with Disabilities at Ramapo College: What Faculty Need to Know
Students with disabilities at Ramapo College are protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. These laws impose a responsibility on post-secondary institutions to refrain from discrimination on the basis of disability and to provide disabled students with meaningful access to learning.
Qualified students with disabilities must be given the same opportunities as other students to participate in and benefit from programs offered. Appropriate academic adjustments may need to be provided to address the unique differences of each student with a disability to ensure meaningful access.
Section 504 defines as disabled those individuals who have physical, sensory, psychological and/or learning disabilities that have been documented to impact on a major life activity, including learning. Most individuals protected under the law have disabilities which are not necessarily apparent, including learning disabilities, psychological disabilities, chronic medical conditions, traumatic brain injury or neurological conditions.
During the 1997-98 academic year at Ramapo College, over 220 students with disabilities were registered with the Office of Specialized Services (OSS). Approximately 74 students had a discernible physical or sensory disability, 100 were learning disabled, 31 students had a psychological disability, and the remaining 22 students had other documented disabilities. Given these figures, faculty cannot presume that students registered with OSS who do not have a discernible physical disability are learning disabled.
Under the law, the student’s privacy is protected. Comprehensive documentation of a disability to establish eligibility is kept on file in OSS. Faculty are not provided with a specific diagnosis or otherwise informed about the exact nature of the student’s disability by the Office of Specialized Services, unless the student chooses to reveal that information and provides written consent to do so (see further information under “Confidentiality”).
Despite the protection against discrimination provided by the laws, not all students with limitations defined by Section 504 and the ADA consider themselves to be disabled or choose to avail themselves of the support and services to which they are entitled by law.
In contrast to policy at the elementary and secondary school level where it is the school’s responsibility to identify students with special needs and to provide appropriate services, at the post-secondary level students share the responsibility with their institution for the implementation of appropriate academic adjustments. The student must initiate the process by self-identifying as an individual with a disability.
Ramapo College does not have a separate program with special admission standards for students with disabilities. Pre-admission inquiries of applicants about the presence of a disability are illegal. Self- identification occurs after college admission. Once admitted to the college, the student with a disability is responsible for requesting academic adjustments under Section 504, and for providing documentation that supports the request. According to federal regulations, in order to serve as the basis for determining appropriate accommodations and academic adjustments, the documentation provided (a) must be completed by a qualified professional (e.g. physician, psychologist, learning disability specialist), (b) must clearly establish the presence of a disability as defined by the regulations and (c) should provide sufficient information about the implications of the disability in a learning environment.
At Ramapo College, the Office of Specialized Services has the responsibility for meeting with students who have identified themselves as having a disability. This policy is clearly defined in college admissions materials, the schedule of classes, and the student handbook. OSS disability services professionals review documentation, and determine with each student what modifications might be required for meaningful access.
With written permission from each student, OSS provides faculty each semester with a list of students in their classes who are registered with OSS. Either the student or an OSS counselor approaches faculty about implementing academic adjustments appropriate for that student. Faculty may initiate contact with an OSS registered student in the situation where a student has not requested academic adjustments and the faculty member believes that providing such accommodations might equalize access.
It is not advisable for faculty to provide disability-related academic adjustments to a student who has not registered with the Office of Specialized Services, even if that student presents documentation directly to the faculty member. Although federal regulations do not specifically prohibit this practice, Ramapo College policy states that OSS staff have been assigned this responsibility and have the expertise to review documentation to establish that students are eligible for protection against discrimination as defined by the law. OSS staff will also determine the legitimacy and appropriateness of the academic adjustments requested, and ensure consistency in the provision of academic adjustments to each student across courses.
Faculty who do not follow this policy, no matter how well-meaning their intentions, jeopardize their position in any potential dispute that may arise over academic adjustment requests.
If faculty provide disability-related academic adjustments to students not registered with OSS and without documentation, they leave themselves open to challenges from other students to receive the same treatment.
The terms “academic adjustments” and “academic accommodations” are frequently used interchangeably, with the former being the preferred term in a post-secondary setting. When used alone, the word “accommodations” generally refers to non-academic modifications such as housing or transportation arrangements. An appropriate academic adjustment is a modification to the learning environment or learning process that removes a barrier to full participation and allows equal access for students with disabilities. Academic adjustments are meant to eliminate discrimination by equalizing opportunities, not to provide an unfair advantage to eligible students.
When a student registers with the Office of Specialized Services, accommodations and academic adjustments are jointly determined by the student and the OSS counselor. All requested accommodations and/or academic adjustments must be determined to be appropriate to the student’s documented needs. Approved modifications are recorded on an “Approved Accommodations Summary” form kept in the student’s file, which is not automatically sent to faculty but is available to faculty upon request.
Prior to the start of each semester, or as early in the semester as possible, OSS recommends that the student and faculty member privately discuss how the limiting effects of the student’s disability may impact on the completion of course requirements, and what accommodations and/or academic adjustments may need to be implemented to provide equal access. Outright denial of an accommodation or academic adjustment without due deliberation could result in claims of discrimination and in litigation against the individual faculty or staff member.
A faculty or staff member should always contact OSS whenever a request that is considered questionable or unwarranted is made by a student, to determine if the requested accommodation or academic adjustment has been approved by the office. The faculty member may also ask the student to provide a copy of the “Approved Accommodations Summary” form.
A student must give a faculty or staff member adequate time to honor his/her request for accommodations or academic adjustments. Depending on the level of complexity of the request, a minimum of one week’s advanced notice is suggested.
Appropriate academic adjustments fall into four categories:
- Services – e.g. notetaking, reader services, scribing, interpreting
- Alternative media – e.g. large print, recorded textbooks, braille materials
- Adaptive technology – e.g. adaptive computer keyboards, assistive listening devices, computer voice input and output, magnifying microscopes
- Modifications to Policies, Procedures, Practices – e.g. alternative testing procedures, alternate test formats, extended deadlines, course substitutions
OSS staff are available to assist faculty in implementing any needed academic adjustments. In situations where course materials need to be obtained in or converted to alternative formats such as large print or braille, it is essential that faculty and OSS staff work closely to ensure that materials are available to the student in the desired format in a timely manner.
Off-campus experiences. Faculty need to assure accessibility when planning class trips or field work experiences outside of the college. Faculty should verify the accessibility of museums and other destinations. Accessible vans and buses can be reserved through transportation companies. Students with disabilities may require assistive listening devices, interpreting services, or audio-taped descriptions when participating in field trips. OSS staff can be notified for assistance in making arrangements.
Field placements and internships are important components of several Ramapo College academic programs. Transportation, job site modification and job accommodations may be necessary for students with not readily discernible disabilities, as well as for those with more obvious needs. Faculty responsible for placements should openly discuss accessibility needs with the students, and may contact the OSS career counselor for assistance in arranging the appropriate sites and/or job accommodations.
Fundamental alteration not required. Meaningful access, as defined by the federal laws, does not require that the college fundamentally alter the nature of programs or services, nor does it require providing modifications that would impose undue financial burdens on the college. Students are involved in planning for their academic adjustments, but historically the laws have been interpreted to favor the institution (as represented by OSS) as having the ultimate right to choose the manner in which meaningful access is provided. Recent Office of Civil Rights (OCR) rulings have challenged this interpretation in favor of supporting the student’s preferred mode of academic accommodation.
Federal regulations regarding confidentiality are clearly stated in both Section 504 and the ADA.
Information revealed on a need to know basis At Ramapo College, a student voluntarily submits documentation to the Office of Specialized Services (OSS) about the existence of a disability and its impact on major life activities in order to establish the need for accommodations, academic adjustments, and/or support services. According to federal regulations regarding confidentiality, OSS is prohibited from sharing this information with others except on a need-to-know basis. Under the law, faculty members and non-OSS staff have neither the right nor the “need to know” (legal term) to access documentation or to inquire about the diagnosis of a student’s disability. What faculty must know, however, are the implications of the documented disability for learning as well as any modifications necessary and appropriate for meeting the student’s disability-related needs. This information is shared with faculty only with the permission of the student.
Federal regulations further state that qualified disabled individuals may not be subjected to intrusive questions about their disability, no matter how well-meaning the intention of the faculty or staff member.
A student with a disability also has the legal right to deny permission for OSS to share with faculty the fact that he/she is registered as a student with a disability. A student may choose this option when no academic adjustments are required.
Confidentiality of revealed information. A student may choose to verbally reveal specific information about the limiting effects of his/her disability to faculty and non-OSS staff, or may provide written authorization for the OSS counselor to communicate with faculty and staff. The information provided is meant to enlighten and to involve members of the college community in problem-solving. Individuals entrusted in such a manner must regard this information as extremely private, and are not free to reveal the nature or impact of a student’s disability with other parties except on a need-to-know basis, and then only with the student’s express consent.
Confidentiality is of great concern to all students with disabilities, many of whom do not want their peers to know about their affiliation with OSS. Students want faculty to be sensitive to this concern, and to discuss disability-related issues with them privately, and not in the presence of other students, faculty or staff.
The Office of Specialized Services was created primarily to facilitate equal access as required by law.
Since 1976, OSS has also been the recipient of a U.S. Department of Education grant focused on the retention and graduation of students with disabilities through the provision of a range of academic support services:
- Academic advisement
- Study skills workshops
- Learning strategies consultation
- Supplemental instruction
- Peer tutoring
- Computer instruction
- Career development programming
Personal counseling, career counseling, independent living counseling, cultural enrichment activities, and referral to college and community resources are also available.
Collaboration between faculty and OSS staff is essential to ensure meaningful access to students with disabilities. Services available to faculty toward this end are:
- With student permission, faculty receive a list of OSS students enrolled in their courses each semester
- Annual outreach to faculty outlining their responsibilities under Section 504 and the ADA
- Consultation offered each semester on teaching strategies
- Training on adaptive equipment and computer technology
- Annual speakers addressing special topics related to disability
- Individual consultation on specific students and appropriate academic adjustments, including alternative testing
- Collaboration in resolving disagreements between faculty and students over appropriate academic adjustments
If a faculty member suspects that a student has a disability but the student’s name does not appear on the list of OSS students received that semester, there are several possible explanations.
- The student is registered with OSS but has not given permission for faculty to be notified.
- The student may have a disability but has chosen not to self-identify to the college.
- The student may have a disability but is not aware of services available under the law.
- The student has a disability that may have been overlooked (e.g. a learning disability that becomes apparent in a writing course).
Because this situation is potentially very complex and involves confidentiality, it is best for the faculty member who finds himself/herself in this position to contact the director of Specialized Services, or another OSS staff member, for guidance.
Students not registered with the Office of Specialized Services
If a student not registered with OSS discloses to faculty or staff the presence of a disability or requests a disability-related accommodation, faculty or staff should encourage adherence to the college Accommodations Policy by referring the student to OSS in order to establish eligibility and determine appropriate accommodations and academic adjustments.
The use of adaptive equipment and adaptive computer technology is becoming increasing widespread across campus. Faculty now have available a wide selection of adaptive technology for alternative testing and for use in their classrooms with students with disabilities. Adaptive technology is also used by students for access to email and the Internet, and for completion of out-of-class assignments.
- Assistive listening devices for classroom, conference, and large lecture hall setting
- CCTV’s for enlargement of printed material
- Reading machine for scanning written material to voice output
- Adaptive computer keyboards
- Voice input for computer activities
- Computer screen enlargement
- Computer voice output
- Conversion of text to large-print or braille
- Assorted low-tech equipment such as magnifiers, portable writing surfaces
OSS maintains two small computer labs equipped with a range of adaptive technology for student study sessions, training and testing purposes. Interested faculty may request an orientation to the world of assistive technology by contacting OSS.
Faculty teaching courses that require computer access should discuss accessibility needs with students with disabilities. Most students are familiar with alternative computer access, but many have had little exposure to the array of technology available to help them solve their access problems. Knowing in advance that computer applications are an essential course component is helpful to the student and OSS staff in planning appropriate academic adjustments to ensure computer access. OSS staff are available for individual consultation with faculty as needed.
Creative problem solving by faculty and students is encouraged. Some of the best solutions for student access have come from our faculty.
This academic adjustment is the most frequently needed equalizer. Alternative testing conditions vary according to the individual student’s needs, the test format, length of test, course content, etc. If extended time or a reduced distraction testing site are the only required modifications, faculty frequently provide the alternative testing conditions without assistance from OSS. In those situations where readers, scribes, alternative test formats, etc., are required, alternative testing is more likely to be arranged through the joint efforts of faculty and OSS staff.
It is the student’s responsibility to request these adjustments, and the assigned OSS counselor can be contacted if there is a need to verify whether they are appropriate. Although under the law it is the faculty’s responsibility to make sure alternative testing arrangements are provided, OSS will facilitate equal access by proctoring exams. The student needs to give OSS at least five days’ notice of test dates in order for OSS to guarantee that arrangements will be in place. This is done by the student filling out a “Test Request Form”. If advanced notice is not provided, OSS will make every effort to accommodate each student in as timely a fashion as possible.
Faculty can set the stage for student initiative by advising their classes that they are interested in meeting with any student who requires appropriate academic adjustments. This can be done by announcing these intentions the first day of class, and by including the following statement on the course syllabus:
“If you need course adaptations or accommodations because of a documented disability, please make an appointment to meet with me during my office hours.”
Students with disabilities are entitled by law to equal access to the educational opportunities available at Ramapo College. This means that the college is under no obligation to assure that students with disabilities are successful, but is required to assure that they have the same opportunities as other students to be successful. As is the case with the general student body, students affiliated with OSS represent a broad range of academic ability and commitment to their studies. Some will be outstanding students and some will be less successful.
Faculty must be comfortable in grading students with disabilities according to their performance and not confuse performance with effort. If faculty grade fairly, students with disabilities will not find themselves in upper level courses unable to meet the demands. Inflated grades, no matter how well-intentioned, do not help students with disabilities develop a realistic self-evaluation of their abilities and career potential. Students need accurate feedback in order to choose appropriate majors, and make realistic career choices.