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Not Requesting Accommodations in College? Read this first.

When I was a college accessibility coordinator, it would be expected for some students to request accommodations either in October or early in the spring semester of their freshman year. Other outliers waited longer, two years or more in extreme cases.  All that time, they did not have what they needed. The consequences were often severe: high levels of stress, poor grades, academic probation, prohibited from participating in sports (if an athlete), needing to improve their GPA, loss of scholarships, not getting into a competitive major, and more.

The consequences, stress, and emotional toll can be avoided making college much more enjoyable and successful. However, students do choose not to obtain accommodations. In my experience, there were three main reasons students gave for waiting to ask for accommodations. 

parent and child sitting on a couch looking at a computer

I just want to be like everyone else.

When I first heard a student say this, it was my first semester working at the college. It was October, and a female student who had recently requested accommodations had just sat down for her interview to discuss her issue and what she needed. She stated her grades had not been as good as she had hoped but needed to do well to maintain her scholarship and get into the nursing program. She then described what she felt in high school using her accommodations: self-conscious, stigmatized, shame, and guilt. It took my breath away, and I almost teared up. It was tragic that any person felt this way; even more critical, it hindered her from asking for accommodations.

I was thinking of my son, who has a learning disability and was recently diagnosed at that time. What would I say to him if he said this to me? I’d be just as heartbroken, if not more. I told her what my wife and I had been telling our son from day one of his diagnosis. There is nothing wrong with you. You are just like everyone else. You learn differently. In addition, I told her that in college, most faculty are not interested in your disability. They are invested in you doing well. Putting my dad-side away, I assured her that she would be treated like everyone else. You either earn or don’t earn the grade.

However, I did acknowledge that a learning disability puts you at a disadvantage. Without the accommodations, you don’t have a level playing field. It makes it harder to show what you know. Once you have accommodations and use them, showing what you know will be more accurate. She thanked me and got what she needed. She returned in the spring to get her new accommodation letters and informed me that she had done significantly better and regretted not coming in sooner.

Every semester there was at least two or three that told me the same reason. I told each of these students about that female student my first semester who had said the same thing (kept her name private, of course) and how she did better once she had what she needed. In the least, I could give them hope.

Take away message: get your accommodations as soon as you can. Don’t wait.

I wanted to see what it was like not to use accommodations.

I have to admit this one was almost as common as the prior one. However, my compassion was significantly different. I would ask these students the same question, “So, how’d that work out for you?” Every single one said the same thing, “It didn’t.” The consequences were similar; lower grades, more stress, etc. The exception was this could have been prevented. They could have used accommodations, but they chose not to pursue it. It’s like playing academic roulette with grades. It’s a gamble and, in my experience, never paid off, not once.

There was an undercurrent of control that was noticeable, not uncommon, and easily understood given the structured manner in which accommodations are administered in high school. The need to have some control and even find out for yourself when to use and not use accommodations is understandable, even noble, as a part of learning about yourself. However, it’s not a sustainable way to maintain your grades or even implement accommodations as soon as you may need them. Students with this mindset learn that they have a misguided perception of the accommodations process and no fundamental knowledge of their role in using accommodations.

To correct the misperceptions, I would tell them that they had control throughout the process. Always. It was up to them if they decided to come to me or not. They decided to come back and get their accommodation letters. Once they had them, they decided to turn them in to each professor. Once turned in to each professor, it was their decision to use their accommodations or not.

Further, each student can pick and choose which tests to use test accommodations. I also made it clear that I don’t recommend picking and choosing, especially test accommodations. I also made it clear that they could have gone through the process a lot earlier and then chosen not to use accommodations until they decided accommodations were needed.

Bonus Tip: Get your accommodations as soon as you can. Even if you think you may not need to use them, they will be ready for you when you do; no time wasted, less stress, and faster to implement. 

Learning about yourself and how your disability affects you is key to self-advocacy and requesting accommodations. A complete course on learning to self-advocate for accommodations can be found here:

I didn’t need them before now.

I was always skeptical about this statement. It could be that these students did not need accommodations at all before their request. However, in my experience, this statement only indicated an acceptance of lower grades than they deserved. When questioning students who report this reason, I made sure to ask them about their prior semester experiences and especially grades. Very few did well. Most did about average; the most common grade was a C. In all cases, there was a point in their college experience where the course material just became too much. All saw some drop in grades. The reasons varied, but typically it was the complexity and amount of information required to know, process, and learn.

It was a straightforward process for those who did well, and their grades improved once accommodations were in place.  For those who did not do as well, I brought up the idea that they may have settled for lower grades because they thought they did not need accommodations. C’s can become B’s quite easily when using accommodations. That’s what access is all about. I explained that accommodations level the playing field, but without accommodations, it’s like running a race with a parachute on your back. You are limited in how fast you can run. The role of accommodations is to eliminate barriers. For example, accommodations get rid of the parachute on your back and let you run your race. In real terms, it means higher grades, even if it is five points. That could be the difference between getting straight C’s or getting B’s. In almost every case, the grades did improve after getting and using their accommodations.

If you are considering not using accommodations, know that accommodations work when you use them. That also implies that you have them to use them. These students waited and experienced the natural consequences of waiting. Those consequences can be eliminated. If this article didn’t convince you, please read it again and keep these examples in mind. I hope you make the right choice.

A FREE resource to help you navigate the accommodations request process. Take the mystery out of it and get clear on what you need.