Accessing Disability Services: Office Roles

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Section 2: Roles and Responsibilities of the Disability Services Office

Meet Kenneth, a student at Western Carolina University!  “At WCU, I take the same classes as all other college students. If I need to, I can go to the office of disability services and they help me access accommodations. In college classes, I do the same work as all of my peers.” Kenneth realized the importance of inclusion in college, and he reached out to the DS office for accommodations in his college classes. Find Kenneth’s story in the sidebar to read more.

Whether institutions of higher education already have an established program for students with intellectual disabilities or are considering starting an inclusive on-campus program, knowledge of the roles and responsibilities of the DS offices is critical for a smooth working relationship.

Colleges and universities provide accommodations and facilitate access so that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate in and enjoy the benefits of all programs, services, and activities offered by the institution.   Most often, these accommodations are provided by a  Disability Services Office or Disability Resource Center on campus.  These offices help to assure that the college is providing reasonable accommodations in alignment with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability.

According to the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS), The Role of Disability Resource and Services (DRS) CAS Standards Contextual Statement:

Postsecondary disability offices are transitioning from a perspective of strict compliance to a resource-oriented model. This transition is in compliance with ADA regulations, as amended in 2008, and in alignment with emerging models of student development theory and disability philosophy. (p. 2)

Additionally, according to the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS), Disability Resources and Services (DRS) CAS Standards and Guidelines:

The primary mission of Disability Resources and Services (DRS) is to provide leadership and facilitate equal access to all institutional opportunities for disabled students.

To accomplish its mission, DRS must perform three duties:

  • Provide institution-wide advisement, consultation, and training on disability-related topics, including legal and regulatory compliance, universal design, and disability scholarship. 
  • Collaborate with partners to identify and remove barriers to foster an all-inclusive campus. 
  • Provide individual services and facilitate accommodations to students with disabilities.

Because disability touches all aspects of higher education, DRS should be at the forefront as institutional policies are developed and implemented and as systems evolve. Through collaboration with institutional allies, networks, and community partners, DRS leadership contributes to the development of equitable higher education experiences for all disabled students. (p. 5)

Postsecondary disability offices are transitioning from a perspective of strict compliance to a resource-oriented model. This transition is in compliance with ADA regulations, as amended in 2008, and in alignment with emerging models of student development theory and disability philosophy.

Definition of a person with a disability: Any person with a physical or mental impairment that results in a substantial limitation of one or more major life activities such as caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working may be considered as an individual with a disability.  Students must meet the academic and technical standards requisite for admission to, or participation in, the college's education program or activity in order to qualify for most accommodations. 

Often students with intellectual disabilities enter college as non-matriculating students, through an alternate admission process.  A student with an intellectual disability who enters an established program at an institution of higher education (IHE) as a non-matriculated student should be able to access college courses, find meaningful employment, and participate in a wide range of college activities and services.

Once a college program accepts a student with intellectual disabilities, they are considered “otherwise qualified” and eligible to receive reasonable accommodations.  Students with intellectual disabilities should register with the disability services office in the same way as other students.  While supports that are above and beyond reasonable accommodations will be provided by staff of the program for students with ID, all accommodations and campus accessibility issues should be addressed by the disability services office.

Process for Accessing Services

Registering: Students with disabilities are responsible for making their need for disability-related accommodations known to Disability Services and requesting academic accommodations or adjustments.

Documentation: Students must provide medical or psychological documentation to the DS office that describes their disability and how the disability impacts them as a student.

Meeting with Disabilty Services Staff: Students will meet with disability services staff to discuss and request the specific accommodations or adjustments required to support them in each of their classes or in campus activities.  Colleges may ask the student, when appropriate, to provide diagnostic test results and professional recommendations supporting the need for auxiliary aids.

Accommodations: Disability Services professionals can help students determine appropriate accommodations, facilitate access, and provide needed auxiliary aids and services.  They will also assist in communicating student needs to faculty and staff.  DS personnel also participate in ensuring that all aspects of campus life are accessible, including facilities, communication systems, curriculum, and campus procedures/policies.  It is important to note that postsecondary education institutions are not required to provide personal aids, devices, or services of a personal nature including help in bathing, dressing, eating or other personal care.

Some common accommodations and auxiliary aides used at the college level are listed below.  This is not an exhaustive list - accommodations and aides are determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the needs of the student.

  • Priority registration
  • Reduced course load
  • Testing accommodations (i.e., extended time on tests; use of readers, scribes, proctors)
  • Testing in a room with limited distractions
  • Interpreters or Captionists
  • Textbooks in an alternate format
  • Course substitutions
  • Attendance or deadline extensions for medical reasons
  • Braille calculators, printers or typewriters
  • Assistive listening devices
  • Computer-based reading programs and other assistive software
  • Notetakers and readers

Disability Services can support students with ID who are in a campus program in several ways:

  • Determine appropriate accommodations
  • Provide auxiliary aids and services
  • Advise program staff about working relationships with teaching faculty
  • Collaborate with program staff in reviewing known or potential campus access barriers that could limit the full participation of students with intellectual disabilities


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