What are Your Legal and Professional Obligations?

Jump Down To: Accessibility Services | Disclosure and Accommodations | Confidentiality

As a faculty member or instructor, there are both legal and professional rationales to design and deliver courses that provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities while not changing the standards or objectives of your course content. The laws that guarantee access to your courses for qualified students with disabilities are grounded in America's national policy principle that disability is a natural part of human existence. As such, inclusion, appropriate scaffolds, and accommodations benefit both the individual and the geosciences.

Relevant Laws (USA)

Adult students (as well as high school youth who are concurrently enrolled) with identified disabilities have federal civil rights that protect their access to courses and programs without threat of disability-based discrimination. These individuals are also entitled to reasonable accommodations that support their access to your college courses. Directly relevant federal laws ensuring equitable access are described below.

Accessibility Services at Your Institution

Every college and university must, at a minimum, designate a person or office to coordinate disability services and compliance with Section 504 or ADA. Often these offices are co-housed with other student services and use titles such as:

  • Office of Disability Services
  • Office of Student Accommodations
  • Office of Accessibility Services
  • Disability Resource Center

The procedures for students to follow in order to request accommodations are usually posted on your institution's website. In addition, the office coordinating disability services often publishes a manual for faculty, offers training for faculty, or provides other support to answer questions you may have about making accommodations. They also provide information on the procedures you are expected to follow. Several examples of websites for college offices of accessibility services and handbooks for faculty are listed on the resources page. The information provided may supplement what's available on your own campus.

You should be notified of the required accommodations when a student with a disability registers with your institution's office for disability services and is found eligible for instructional accommodations. Often, that notification comes in official form via a letter that the student may share or that may be sent directly to you as the course instructor.

Disability Disclosure and Request for Accommodations

At the college level, students must disclose their disability and be found eligible by the college to receive accessibility accommodations. Eligibility for high school special education services or for post-school rehabilitation services does not guarantee eligibility for accommodations in post-secondary education. Follow-up studies report that college students with disabilities who access and use accommodations during college experience significantly greater academic success (Newman et al., 2011). Yet, too many young adults with disabilities still enter college without fully understanding their rights, responsibilities, or opportunities regarding attending and experiencing success in college.

Students Not Formally Seeking Accommodations

Many undergraduate students entering college with hidden disabilities (e.g., specific learning disabilities or dyslexia, emotional or mental health challenges, attention deficits, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and diabetes or other health issues) choose not to disclose their disability for a variety of reasons.

Even some students who have an observable disability may not register with the disability service office or they may opt not to use accommodations. This reluctance to disclose or use accommodations is often associated with the real or perceived stigma created by their "disability label," or perhaps the student does not identify as having a disability, preferring to "make it on their own" (Banks, 2014; Banks & Hughes, 2013). Reluctance to disclose is magnified for students of color or students from low income backgrounds (Banks, 2014; Banks & Hughes, 2013; Lombardi et al., 2012; Newman et al., 2011). In all likelihood, you will have students in your courses who received accommodations in high school but have not disclosed their disability or requested accommodations in college. Some students might register with your disability office once they have received initial or mid-term grades and become eligible for accommodations mid-semester; eligibility applies from this point forward, not retroactively.

Moreover, you may be surprised when a student shares information with you about their challenges that might include a disabling condition. This student might even ask for an accommodation. It is important to note that you are not legally required to provide, or offer, an accommodation to a student who tells you about their disability history yet has not officially registered with your campus office that coordinates disability or accessibility services. In this instance, you could encourage the student to contact the campus office. Although you are not allowed to ask a student with a disability about the presence of a disability -- as that would be a violation of their rights (read the section on confidentiality below) -- you can create an environment that demonstrates your acceptance of all differences.

First Steps Toward a Supportive Environment

Sample Syllabus Statement:

Reasonable accommodations will be made for any student with a documented disability (with documentation by XXX disability student services). Please speak with me at the beginning of the semester if you have a disability that requires accommodations to ensure that we have the appropriate documentation and meet your accommodation needs.

Whether or not the student chooses to disclose, as an instructor, you can create an instructional environment based on universal design principles and AccessSTEM (2015) resources that could mitigate some of the challenges any student might experience (The Center for Universal Design, 2006). A simple first step for you is to include a general statement on your syllabus or course website regarding non-discrimination (your college may provide one for you) as well as one specific to students with disabilities. Some colleges and universities require you to use their legal statements regarding non-discrimination as well as the provision of accommodations to eligible students.

Including statements and links on your syllabus or course website offers resources to your students and ensures they are aware of your willingness to make accommodations. Your syllabus should also include links to other academic or social-emotional supports your campus offers for all students regardless of the presence of a disability. For example, there may be a writing support center on your campus, a counseling center, career services, and other tutorial opportunities. Linking these to your syllabus signifies that seeking assistance is the student's responsibility as well as demonstrates your approval of such support.


When you are advised about a student's need for an accommodation you are not entitled to access the student's confidential records that generated eligibility for that accommodation. In other words, if the accommodation requires that you offer an additional 30 minutes of test time for completion, you are not automatically privy to the records on which the accommodation decision was made nor to the named disability "category" that might have influenced the accommodation decisions. You may not question the student regarding the specifics of the disability. Without the student's permission or direction of the office that coordinates accessibility services, you may not disclose to peer mentors, peers, adjunct faculty, or supervisors that the student has a documented or student reported disability. It is appropriate and permissable to communicate with the disability support personnel if you have questions about how to appropriately provide the accommodation in your instructional setting.


Americans with Disabilities Act of 2008, Pub. L. No. 101-336, §§110-325, 104 Stat. 327 (2008). Retrieved from LexisNexis Academic database.

Banks, J. (2014). Barriers and supports to postsecondary transition: Case studies of African American students with disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 35(1), 28-39.

Banks, J., & Hughes, M. S. (2013). Double consciousness: Postsecondary experiences of African American males with disabilities. The Journal of Negro Education, 82(4), 368-381.

DO-IT. (2015). AccessSTEM resources. Retrieved from http://www.washington.edu/doit/programs/accessstem/accessstem-resources

Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, Pub. L. 101-476, §1400, 104 Stat. 1142 (2004). Retrieved from LexisNexis Academic database.

Lombardi, A. R., Murray, C., & Gerdes, H. (2012). Academic performance of first-generation college students with disabilities. Journal of College Student Development, 53(6), 811-826.

Newman, L., Wagner, M., Knokey, A. M., Marder, C., Nagle, K., Shaver, D., . . . Schwarting, M. (2011). The post-high school outcomes of young adults with disabilities up to 8 years after high school. A report from the national longitudinal transition study-2 (NLTS2). (NCSER 2011-3005).Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

The Center for Universal Design. (2006). The principles of universal design. Retrieved from http://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/pubs_p/docs/poster.pdf

Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Pub. L. No. 93-112 §701, 87 Stat. 394 (2004). Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/civilrights/sec504.htm