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What Faculty Need to Know about Students with Disabilities

Students with Disabilities at Ramapo College: What Faculty Need to Know

It's The Law

Students with disabilities at Ramapo College are protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act as amended (2008). 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.

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Who is Eligible

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.

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 “A Word about 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.

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Students Register with OSS to Request Services

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, and for providing documentation that supports the request. 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 and the student handbook. OSS disability services professionals review documentation, and determine with each student what modifications might be required for meaningful access.

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.

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The Problem with Direct Provision of Services by Faculty

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.

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Exactly What Are 'Appropriate Academic Adjustments' (Accommodations) and How Are They Implemented?

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, OSS Director/Assistant Director, 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.

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 his/her/their Academic Accommodation Notice.

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 in advance 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 Development/Transition Experiences Coordinator for assistance in arranging the appropriate sites and/or job accommodations.

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.

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A word About Confidentiality

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 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.

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OSS Supports Students

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
  • Technology instruction
  • Career development programming

Personal counseling, career counseling, independent living counseling, and referral to college and community resources are also available.

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OSS Supports Faculty

Collaboration between faculty and OSS staff is essential to ensure meaningful access to students with disabilities. Services available to faculty toward this end are:

  • 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

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Referral of Students to OSS

If a faculty member suspects that a student has a disability but the student has not disclosed this or requested accommodations, 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.

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Adaptive Technology

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 software 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 a computer lab 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.

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Alternative Testing

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 Alternative Testing staff OSS or the Laurel Hall Testing Center. 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 Alternative Testing staff.

It is the student’s responsibility to request these adjustments, and once they do, the faculty member will be notified via e-mail through receipt of the student’s Approved Accommodation Notice. Within the Accommodation Notice is a link for Faculty to complete a Faculty Testing Agreement. This Agreement outlines the necessary rules and guidelines that faculty require, so Alternative Testing staff at OSS/Laurel Testing Center may proctor the student’s exam appropriately. A complete Faculty Testing Agreement is required for Alternative Testing staff to approve, schedule and proctor your student’s exam. More information can be found in our Alternative Testing Information for Faculty webpage.

Although under the law it is the faculty’s responsibility to make sure alternative testing arrangements are provided, Alternative Testing staff at OSS and/or the Laurel Hall Testing Center staff will facilitate equal access by proctoring exams. The student needs to request an exam reservation no later than five business days in advance excluding weekends and holidays (and ten business days for final exams) using our new student portal – OSSOnline. If a student makes an exam reservation for your class, you will be notified via e-mail. This e-mail includes the exam details and a link for you to upload the exam. Exam uploads are due by 12pm the day before the exam. If you do not receive an e-mail, you may assume that the student is taking the exam in class with you.  Alternatively, faculty may view and access Faculty Alternative Testing Agreement (s), exam reservations and the exam upload link within the alternative testing section of the OSSOnline Instructor Portal.

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Creating an Atmosphere

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 adaptation or accommodations because of a disability that has been documented with the Office of Specialized Services, please make an appointment with me.” (ARC, 2018)

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A Final Word About Evaluations and Grading

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.

Resources for Faculty Who Work with Students with Disabilities

Please reference these online resources, which you may find helpful in working with your students.

Accessibility Tips

1. Speak facing the class, group, or individual.
Not only is it good practice to face the audience while speaking, but it provides students who utilize lip-reading to aid in communication direct line of sight to the instructor. Remember to speak clearly and don’t obstruct the view to your mouth. The National Deaf Center provides additional tips for communicating with students with hearing impairment.

2. Create accessible documents (PDF, Word, PowerPoint, etc.).
One of the main issues students have with online content is inaccessible documents posted by instructors. Often instructors scan books or documents and post them for students to read. However, they sometimes forget to process the scanned material for accessibility. Microsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat have built-in accessibility checkers to assist in making accessible documents.

3. Provide captions and a transcript for videos.
Any videos posted for students to view pertaining to the course must be accessible. An easy option is YouTube’s automatic captions. After the captions are created you have the option to edit the content to fix errors. Transcripts are another option when captioning is not readily available.

4. Use color contrast between text and background.
Color contrast may not seem to be an issue, but to someone with low vision or color blindness, it can be a big issue. Different types of low vision have diverse effects on how individuals see images and text. Color contrast helps ease those struggles. WebAIM provides a color contrast checker to aid in selecting colors for websites or documentation.

5. Not all web applications and websites are accessible.
If you are asking students to use any web application that is not supported by RCNJ, be aware that some applications may not be accessible and may require additional services for students to have equal access. Contact RCNJ’s Instructional Design Center and OSS when requiring students to use any non-RCNJ supported web application or website well before the beginning of the semester to ensure accessibility before it becomes a problem for you and your students.

6. Keep it simple and to the point.
Whether it’s content on a website or documents for a class, structure content in plain English and keep it straightforward. Refrain from fluffing information which may lead to confusion. Effective content is communicated using short sentences for a single, simple idea.

7. Reach out to the Office of Specialized Services (OSS). 
If you have any questions or concerns about how to accommodate a student, please reach out to OSS. OSS has many recommendations and resources to aid in providing accommodations to students.

Adapted from: the University of South Florida – Accessibility Tips for Instructors

Person-First Language/Disability Etiquette

A – Z of Disability Etiquette from Independence Australia

Person First Language by Kathie Snow

Disability Etiquette by United Spinal Association

Disability Language Style Guide by National Center on Disability and Journalism

Online Course/Electronic Document Accessibility

10 Tips for Creating Accessible Online Course Content from 3PlayMedia

Creating Accessible Word Documents from the National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials

PDF Accessibility – Remediating Part I from the National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials

PDF Accessibility – Remediating Part II from the National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials

How To Create an Accessible PowerPoint from Perkins School for the Blind

Online Accessibility a Faculty Duty by Inside HigherEd

Resources from the National Center on Disability and Access to Education

Views of a Faculty Member: Accessibility from where I stand by Kimberly Snow

Universal Design

Faculty Room from the University of Washington

Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education by CAST

Ramapo College of New Jersey recognizes the value of publishing on the Internet. The College does not preview, review, censor, or control the content of these pages in any way as a matter of course. This page and Web pages linked from this page are created by the authors, and do not in any way constitute official Ramapo College of New Jersey content.