III. Academic Adjustments
A. Student's Duty to Provide Notification and Documentation of Disability
Once students are admitted, they are responsible for notifying the school of their disability, requesting academic adjustments, and providing any necessary evidence of a disability-related need for the requested adjustment OCR has frequently found that a college did not violate § 504 or the ADA by denying academic adjustments where students fail to provide the necessary notification or documentation.
In Highline Community College (WA) OCR held that the school had not discriminated against a hearing-impaired student where he had not given them adequate notice of his disability until almost one week into the semester. Prior to the beginning of the fall term, the student received a copy of the fall quarter class schedule and completed a "disability declaration card." The student stated that he believed that evidence of his disability had been forwarded by his prior school and that he fulfilled his responsibility to initiate the provision of academic adjustments by completing the disability declaration form. When he attended his first two classes, however, he found that no academic adjustments were in place. The student then informed his professor that he was hearing- impaired, and needed note-taking services, to sit in the front of the room and to have the instructor face him while lecturing. None of this occurred, and after the second class, the student's mother contacted the school's disabled student services coordinator about his need for academic adjustments. The student met with the coordinator a few days later at which time he provided documentation of his disability.
OCR held that the student failed to show that he gave the college adequate notice of his disability-related need for academic adjustments prior to his meeting with the coordinator. It stated that while the disability declaration form was sufficiently ambiguous to have contributed to the student's assumption that he was following the correct procedure in requesting academic adjustments, other materials clearly instructed students to contact the coordinator for academic adjustments
2. Student Required to Notify School of Need for Particular Academic Adjustment
Other schools should make sure that their materials on academic adjustments contain similar language. It must be clear to students that it is their responsibility ask for help; they cannot sit and wait for the school to identify their disability and make accommodations for it. Nor, can they wait for the school to identify a particular accommodation. OCR has held that the student is responsible for notifying a school of the need for a particular academic adjustment. For example, in Whittier College Sch. of Law (CA) OCR found that the school had not discriminated against a student with dyslexia where it provided her with the only academic adjustment recommended by her clinical psychologist: additional time for examinations.
After her dismissal for failure to achieve the required academic performance, the student appealed her disqualification to the school's Dean stating that the extra time granted for examinations was not sufficient to compensate for her reading disability. In a subsequent petition for readmission, she stated that new information from her clinical psychologist indicated that additional strategies were available which might be helpful in improving her academic performance. OCR found that the school was not obligated to readmit the student and allow her to use these strategies.
It noted that when the student initially failed to meet the required GPA, she was notified by letter of her right to raise any concerns with the school about accommodations. According to OCR:
The complainant did not avail herself of this opportunity to inform the [school] that she required different academic adjustments than those already provided to her. . . . OCR finds that in this case, the [school] provided complainant with the academic adjustment recommended by her clinical psychologist. The [school] was not obligated to determine without any notice or input from the complainant that the academic adjustments provided to the complainant were insufficient. Further, the [school] was not obligated to guarantee the complainant's success in the program. OCR finds that the [school] did all that it reasonably was required to do by providing the complainant with the academic adjustment that she and her clinical psychologist recommended.
3. Documentation Requirement
Once a student has provided a college or university with notice of the disability and requested academic adjustments, they are also required to provide supporting documentation. OCR has held that a school does not discriminate against a student by requesting such documentation.
In Community College of Vermont a student who stated he was dyslexic claimed he had been discriminated against when the school refused to provide him with academic adjustments until he provided written documentation of his disability. At the time of his request for academic adjustments, the student's only evidence that he was dyslexic was a statement from a friend who was a teacher. The student stated that he felt that any teacher should be able to recognize his disability, and the school's request that he provide documentation for it was evidence of discrimination against students with disabilities. OCR disagreed. It found that the school had no obligation under § 504 and the ADA to accommodate the student so long as he refused to provide medical documentation of his disability.
The requirement of providing documentation includes providing documentation to support a particular kind of academic adjustment. For example, in State Univ. of New York a student requested that essay-type questions, instead of multiple-choice questions, be included in his provision of academic adjustments. In evaluating this request, the school's disabled student services coordinator reviewed a neuropsychological evaluation and other medical documentation provided by the student, and consulted with the student's vocational rehabilitation counselor and the doctor who had performed the 1992 evaluation. Both the counselor and the doctor informed her that their recommendations for academic adjustments for the student, as outlined in the evaluation, did not include the substitution of essay-type questions. Moreover, the doctor stated that, based on evaluation, there was nothing to substantiate that essay-type questions were required over multiple- choice questions. Accordingly, OCR held that the college did not discriminate against the student by denying him the requested academic adjustment.
As with the notice requirement, schools should make the students responsibility to provide documentation for requested accommodations clear in the materials it provides them on academic adjustments. Students must understand that accommodations cannot be made simply because they feel a need for them; there must be a legitimate educational purpose for making an academic adjustment.
4. Failure to Make Accommodations May be Costly
Once a student has documented his or need for accommodations, failing to provide them can be costly both for the school and the officials who make such a refusal. For example, in Dearmont v. Texas A&M Univ. the court awarded monetary damages, reinstatement, attorneys' fees, and court costs to a student with dyslexia who was removed from a doctoral program and terminated from his employment as a part-time research associate. The student's learning disability was not diagnosed until after he failed his qualifying examination, and he was only given an opportunity to retake it after he successfully appealed to the school's graduate council. The court found, however, that:
By the time Dearmont had ascertained that he had an objective reasonable basis for his test troubles, the faculty had formed an opinion from the effects of his disability that Dearmont was a marginal student at best, and they refused to make a reasonable accommodation to his handicap. When required by outside pressure, they went through the motions of accommodation, while stepping up the pressure directly and indirectly. The actual accommodations were more than offset by the concomitant harassment.
Based on this finding and others, the court awarded Dearmont $24,000 to be paid by the individual defendants, who were jointly and severally liable for the amount. It also awarded postjudgment interest and attorneys' fees.
Schools and school officials can avoid a repeat of this result by closely examining the documentation students provide regarding their disabilities, and then communicating its contents to those in direct contact with them. It will do little good for colleges and universities to clearly communicate the requirement for students to identify their needs and provide supporting documentation for them if those working with the students ignore this information.
B. Requirements Need Not be Waived Where They Are an Essential Part of the Educational Program
1. No Need to Waive Required Classes
Even where a student identifies and provides documentation for a disability, OCR has held that colleges and universities are not required to waive required courses where they can show that the course plays an essential part in the degree program. For example, in Indiana Univ. Northwest OCR held that the university had not violated § 504 when it denied a student permission to substitute a foreign language requirement with other courses. The student, who was majoring in English and Theater in the school's Division of Arts and Sciences, had tried unsuccessfully to complete a Spanish course on two occasions. She asked the university to allow her to substitute cultural course work for the foreign language requirement. The university refused and in a letter to OCR stated:
The rationale for any degree requirement, including the foreign language requirement, is rooted in the collective wisdom of the faculty. . . . Traditionally, foreign language has been included in the curriculum of liberal arts degree programs throughout the country. Its study transmits the skill and commitment to critical thinking and cultural understanding necessary to living responsibly in a pluralistic, competitive technological society. . . . A full understanding of another culture cannot be gained without learning the language of the culture.
Based on this statement and other factors, OCR concluded that the evidence was sufficient to demonstrate that foreign language was considered essential to the university's undergraduate liberal arts program of instruction. Therefore, it found that the university had not violated § 504.
2. Testing Formats and Full-time Attendance Can be Required
Court rulings show that requirements which are essential to a program are not limited to types of courses, but can also include the manner in which tests are given and full-time attendance. In Wynne v. Tufts Univ. Sch. Of Medicine the court held that a school's failure to offer the student an alternative format for a multiple-choice biochemistry exam did not constitute a failure to make a reasonable accommodation. The court noted that the school had documented why, in the department chair's words, "the multiple-choice format provides the fairest way to test the students' mastery of the subject matter of biochemistry." The school elaborated upon the unique qualities of multiple- choice examinations as they apply to biochemistry, and offered an explanation of the historical record to show the background against which such tests were administered to the student. According to the court:
In short, Tufts demythologized the institutional thought processes leading to its determination that it could not deviate from its wonted format to accommodate Wynne's professed disability. It concluded that to do so would require substantial program alterations, result in lowering academic standards, and devalue Tufts' end product -- highly trained physicians carrying the prized credential of a Tufts degree.
In McGregor v. Louisiana State Univ. Bd. of Supervisors the court held that accommodations requested by a law student, including permission to attend classes on a part-time basis and utilize take-home exams, would have required a "substantial modification" in the law school program and were not required under § 504. McGregor had head and spinal injuries which caused fatigue and pain and which impaired his ability to learn. Before his first year in law school, McGregor requested that he be allowed to attend on a part-time status. The school refused stating that its full-time attendance requirement was critical to its program and the requested deviation would be a substantial modification. McGregor attended full-time for his first year, but failed to achieve the GPA required to continue. While acknowledging that other law schools in Louisiana and other states have part-time students, the court held that there was no requirement to accommodate McGregor's needs by allowing him to pursue his degree as a part-time student.
We conclude that the Law Center's decisions to require full-time attendance and in- class examinations for first year students are academic decisions, ones which we find reasonable in light of the Law Center's admittance practices. The first year courses are specifically chosen to simulate the same challenges found in the practice of law, i.e., to assess and assimilate various legal theories in an intelligible manner. The Law Center has structured an intense program with high academic standards, which it believes is best equipped to produce high quality lawyers. Essential to its program is a level playing field for all students: First year students cannot engage in outside work during the semester; they must take the same required courses in the same semester; the examinations are given in class at the same time for each class section; and the final grades are generally based entirely on the final examinations.
. . . McGregor proposes that the Law Center create for him a law school program, either with a part-time schedule and at-home examinations or with lowered passing GPA requirements. These additional accommodations clearly force the Law Center either to lower its academic standards and pass McGregor to the next level or to compromise the reasonable policy of its academic program and allow McGregor to attend part-time and take his examinations at home. Section 504 does not require this much.
Other schools which refuse to waive classes, test formats or attendance policies must also show that their reasons for doing so are based on sound educational policy. Specifically, they must show that their requirement is an essential part of the degree program, and the purpose of the program cannot be fulfilled if the requirement is waived.