by Manju Banerjee, Ph.D.
Vice President for Educational Research and Innovation at Landmark College
For college students with learning disabilities and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, eligibility for accommodations in college starts with disability documentation. It used to be that disability documentation represented the primary source of information attesting to the existence of an impairment as well as the impact of the impairment on academic, social, and emotional competencies (also known as functional limitations). Appropriate documentation of a disability was considered central to accessing accommodations and services at the postsecondary level (NJCLD Technical Report, 2007).
With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADA AA, 2008) and the rapid proliferation of co-occurring and multiple diagnoses (Insel, 2013), there is a debate in the field as to the importance of a precise DSM-5 diagnosis presented within a neuropsychological or psychoeducational evaluation report. In fact, there has been debate about the value of the disability documentation report itself. The ADA AA revised and expanded the previous threshold of “who is a qualified individual with a disability” by articulating many more major life activities and bodily functions that can be significantly impaired due to a disability. It is also worth noting that the ADA, unlike the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), is non-categorical. Additionally, the ADA AA put the onus squarely on the institution to explain why a certain accommodation could not be provided. This was a clear departure from the past, where a student had to provide evidence to justify the need for a requested accommodation.
Many in the education profession have been critical of the disconnect between the disability documentation available to students when they graduate from high school and the type of documentation expected by postsecondary service providers (Banerjee & Shaw, 2007; Gormley, Hughes, Block, & Lendman, 2005; Gregg, 2007; Lendman, 2008; Madaus, Banerjee & Hamblet, 2010; Madaus & Shaw, 2006). Disability documentation guidelines have been criticized as being burdensome and discriminatory against those who can least afford to pay for expensive evaluations and updates. A review of the history of disability documentation guidelines is revealing.
In 1997, the Board of Directors of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) charged an ad hoc committee of professionals to examine the issues surrounding the documentation of a learning disability (click here for a copy of this document). The committee proposed the first national guidelines for documentation of learning disabilities in adolescents and adults. The intent of the guidelines was to provide students, diagnosticians, and service providers “with a common understanding and knowledge base of those components of documentation which are necessary to validate a learning disability and the need for accommodation” (Guidelines for Documentation of Learning Disabilities in Adolescents and Adults, 1997). The guidelines made recommendations regarding the qualifications of the evaluator, clinical results that substantiated a diagnosis, and recommendations and rationale to support proposed accommodations. Although the guidelines did not explicitly provide a statement regarding the recency of documentation, it did note that it was in the student’s best interest to provide “recent and appropriate documentation relevant to the student's learning environment.” The guidelines further noted that at times documentation “may be outdated or inadequate in scope or content” and that an update may be necessary to provide a rationale for continued services. However, the guidelines also called for “flexibility” in accepting documentation, particularly from non-traditional students.
A year later, Educational Testing Services (ETS) published disability documentation policy statements for test takers with LD, identifying similar thresholds of evidence for individuals requesting non-standard administration of high stakes tests. Shortly thereafter, several iterations of disability documentation guidelines were created and adopted by institutions, including different guidelines for different categories of disabilities. Despite different iterations, disability documentation has remained a constant that must be provided by a student seeking accommodations in college.
More recent reauthorizations, amendments, and legal decisions regarding special education and non-discrimination laws have further influenced what is regarded as valid and appropriate documentation of disability. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law on December 10, 2015. It reauthorizes the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was previously reauthorized as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). ESSA endorses universal design for learning (UDL) as a best practice. Some have argued that UDL redirects focus away from individual deficits and diagnoses to learning environments that are proactively inclusive of learner differences, hence further diminishing the need to document individual differences.
Another potential legal change influencing disability documentation is the RISE Act, which was introduced in the Senate with bipartisan support in December 2016. The RISE Act, which amends the Higher Education Opportunity Act (2008), would require colleges and universities to accept an IEP or 504 plan as evidence of disability when a student is seeking accommodations in college. Though not yet confirmed or signed into law, the RISE Act would make postsecondary institutions honor accommodations identified within an IEP or 504 Plan, thereby bypassing the need for disability documentation as proof of need for accommodations.
In 2015, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued “technical assistance” guidance to high-stakes testing agencies on test accommodations. This technical assistance provided several directives to these agencies. Some examples of these stipulations are that: (1) determination of whether an individual has a disability generally should not demand extensive analysis; (2) any documentation requested by a testing entity to support test accommodations must be reasonable and limited to the need; (3) proof of past testing accommodations in similar settings should generally be sufficient to support a request for the same testing accommodations for another high-stakes test; and (4) if an individual had previously received testing accommodations under an IEP or a 504 Plan in a public school or private school, he or she should generally receive the same test accommodations for a current standardized test.
While these stipulations apply to high-stakes testing entities and not directly to postsecondary institutions, many disability services offices in colleges and universities around the country are taking notice. It many ways, the DOJ technical assistance report on test accommodations shifts the focus away from disability documentation as the sole determinant of disability status and access to reasonable accommodations. It elevates the role of IEPs and 504 Plans in providing information about accommodations in college.
The concept of disability documentation is now morphing into a portfolio of evidence. Such a portfolio may include proof of past testing accommodations; observations by educators; recommendations from qualified professionals; past history of diagnosis, including IEP, 504 Plan, and a physician’s letter; and self-reported history of accommodations.
Self-reported evidence is one of the most authentic sources of information, yet it can be met with much skepticism. Unfortunately, personal statements and self-report of the need for accommodations have for a long time been relegated to second place compared to psychometrics and standardized scores on a Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale or a Woodcock Johnson Battery of Tests. Test and sub-test scores often fall short of being able to accurately describe the strengths, challenges, and capabilities of an individual student at a given moment in time. These are at best projections of latent abilities and inherent differences.
Has disability documentation diminished in its importance in determining accommodations at the postsecondary level? While it may be difficult to provide a simple “yes/no” response to this question, it is clear that the role of disability documentation as the primary indicator of specific accommodations is changing. As emerging understanding from neuroscience continues to shape our thinking of neuro-typical and neuro-atypical bases of brain functioning, it seems inevitable that we will be looking at a cocktail of diagnostics to best determine accommodations at a given time in the learning trajectory of the individual student.
Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 (ADA AA). (2008). Retrieved from http://www.ada.gov/pubs/ada.htm
Every Student Succeeds Act. S. 1177 — 114th Congress (2017). Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/114/s1177
Gormley, S. (2005). Eligibility Assessment Requirements at the Postsecondary Level for Students with Learning Disabilities: A Disconnect with Secondary Schools? Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 18(1), 63–70. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ846381
Gregg, N. (2007). Underserved and Unprepared: Postsecondary Learning Disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 22(4), 219–228. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5826.2007.00250.x
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004).
Insell, T. (2013, April 29). Director’s Blog: “Transforming Diagnosis". Retrieved from www.nimh.nih.gov
Lendman, C. (2008). The Documentation-Accommodation Connection: Bridging the Gaps. Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 15(3), 87–92.
Madaus, J. W., Banerjee, M., & Hamblet, E. C. (2010). Learning Disability Documentation Decision Making at the Postsecondary Level. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 33(2), 68–79. https://doi.org/10.1177/0885728810368057
Madaus, J. W., & Shaw, S. F. (2006). The Impact of the IDEA 2004 on Transition to College for Students with Learning Disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 21(4), 273–281. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5826.2006.00223.x
National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, & others. (2007). The Documentation Disconnect for Students with Learning Disabilities: Improving Access to Postsecondary Disability Services. Retrieved from http://www.asha.org/policy/TR2007-00305.htm
RISE Act of 2016. S. 3521 — 114th Congress. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/114/s3521