By Dr. Michael Cottingham- Assistant Professor of Sport Administration
University of Houston
While coaching at sports practice, I spoke to an athlete who is a student at the local university and a wheelchair user. This student needed an accommodation in chemistry class but hadn’t asked for one. This individual looked at me and said, “I…just ….don’t want to ask for help. What if it makes the professor mad?” I looked at the athlete and said, “It’s not help, it’s a reasonable accommodation, it’s like a wheelchair, it just helps you complete the task better.” The athlete finished taping up and agreed with me. The next week, I asked the athlete what had happened since we last talked. The athlete grinned and said, “Well, I sorta spilled some chemicals by accident in class, and the professor said,’ That’s it, we need to get you some help’ and assigned someone to assist me.” The student was receiving a needed accommodation but only after putting herself in a potentially problematic situation.
There are a lot of reasons why people don’t ask for accommodations when they should: they feel guilty, worry about being a burden, worry about making someone angry, don’t want to cheat the system, are afraid, or don’t know what to say.
I use a wheelchair. As a professor I’m aware of how important accommodations are. Every semester, I receive three to four letters from disability resource centers on campus noting students who are allowed to request accommodations, but students don’t make any requests. Perhaps they are afraid to ask, like the athlete I coached, waiting until someone else steps up and demands an accommodation for them. Don’t do this. Be your own advocate and ask for a reasonable accommodation.
While this post is focused on educational accommodations, it can also be applied to employment accommodations. Here is what you need to know:
-Register with the Office of Disability Services, take the time to do it, its worth it!
-No one is going to know what accommodations you need unless you tell them. YOU have to communicate.
-Don’t feel guilty. It is your legal right to be on an even playing field.
-You are not taking advantage of the system. Now trust me, Dr. C. has seen many people trying to cheat the system, but they are never the people who stop and ask themselves, ‘Am I cheating the system?”
-You are not going to be a burden. Schools have systems in place to provide needed accommodations. Some manage accommodations through Disability Service Offices (i.e. they handle the management of the accommodations) while others note the accommodations but the instructor is responsible for managing the accommodations. Do your homework.
-While providing the accommodations is responsibility of all parties involved, requesting the accommodations falls on you. Just because the professor gets a list of possible accommodations you need, this does not mean that you are requesting them. You have to communicate your needs.
-Keep in mind that you may have to educate a faculty member. I believe that more and more faculty members are informed about reasonable accommodations, but some of us still don’t know the drill. By informing faculty about your needs you become an ambassador.
-Take advantage of office hours. Introduce yourself and be fearless. Faculty members are often bored during office hours. We have set aside that time for students, and we’re (usually) glad to see them.
-Know that it’s okay to be nervous asking for accommodations for the first time. It doesn’t matter if you stumble over your words. All that matters is that you get your point across.
-You don’t have to disclose your disability or discuss it unless you want to. You can request accommodations without having to say what your disability is or how it occurred. You don’t have to say, “I’m a quad so my hands don’t work.” Instead, you can say, “I need to use a voice activated computer to take my exams.”
-Have a conversation early, not on the day of an exam. If you ask for an accommodation without reasonable notice, I think the instructor has every right to be annoyed.
-Think out of the box when discussing accommodations. Let’s say you have an incomplete cervical spinal cord injury. You can write but it’s slow. Sure, you can request extra time to write, but you might do better with a computer. I have even seen a student use a tape recorder to record answers.
Be a mentor to others. Once you get this down, take time to discuss the process with other students or future students. Teach them the ropes.