The Interactive Process: This is not an IEP meeting.

Is meeting with accessibility staff just like an IEP meeting? No, it could not be further from it. Find out why.

What you are used to in high school no longer applies to college. The process of obtaining accommodations is nothing like an IEP meeting. The process is called the interactive process, and it is nothing like an IEP meeting. Accommodations are a legal requirement for equal access under the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the rehabilitation act. In college, the student must be the one to request accommodations and provide the documentation. The most significant part of requesting accommodations is meeting with the staff in the university disability services office. It is this interview combined with the documentation that leads to the approval of accommodations. It’s the most critical process that includes meeting with the accessibility staff. This process is called the interactive process, and the interactive process is not an IEP meeting.

College freshmen need to be prepared for it, know what to expect, and ask questions. Best part? It’s not an IEP meeting, not even close. I’ve attended my fair share of IEP meetings, and I have not experienced the nightmare scenarios of parents fighting with teachers and administration. I’m hoping that those difficulties are not the norm. Regardless, the interactive process in college should be much easier, and the good thing is you only have to do it once. 

What is the interactive process?

Law says students provide the info.

I won’t cite the exact wording here, but the law (ADA) does indicate that the student is the one who must provide documentation to support the request. Accessibility staff is not going to go looking for it. You, the student, give all that they need and request. Prepare for this by looking at the documentation requirements about accommodations on the school’s Accessibility Office web page. If you are unsure where to locate it, use the school’s search button and use disability accommodations or something similar.

Read all the information about what documents are needed for your disability. In general, the most common forms of documentation are a formal evaluation or a 504 plan from high school.  Most schools will break down disabilities into general categories like learning disabilities, mental health conditions, ADD/ADHD, etc. Read what pertains to your section. If you have multiple issues, as is sometimes the case, look at each relevant category. You can choose to submit information about each condition. If you have questions about what to do for multiple conditions, email the Accessibility Office for guidance. If the information is too general, or you have a question about additional evaluations, a summary of performance, or you only have an IEP available, email the staff and ask if they accept these too.

Keep in mind that the definition of documentation includes your disability history, formal evaluations, and the student’s self-report. The Accessibility Office web page should have information on the process, the steps, who to contact for information or questions, and the forms to submit (yes, there are more forms). After you submit the information, you should get a confirmation email indicating this and the next steps. If there is some problem with the documents or forms submitted, the staff will let you know what documents are needed to support your request for college accommodations. 

Law says the decision should not be complicated or take a lot of effort to figure out.

It’s another lofty goal and sometimes achievable. We all want this to be as easy as possible, and there are times when it is. However, it’s ideal, and we all know ideal does not always work out. The ease of the interactive process depends on many factors. Staff knowledge and background, the type and quality of the documentation sent, and how prepared you are to tell your story about your disability. The student’s ability to self-disclose and disclose some personal information about themselves is not always easy.

Lack of self-disclosure and ability to explain their disability is where most issues arise and make the interactive process more cumbersome. Why? Because the process gets way off track, getting back on track takes time. The more a student is self-aware, has knowledge about their disability, and can speak openly and confidently about their issues, the quicker and easier that process becomes.

The student’s self-report is also the most important of all the information. The student experience gives accessibility staff a look at how the disability is impacting the student right now. Evaluations are informative but only provide a snapshot of what was going on at the evaluation time. It gives a diagnosis and explains the issues more formally. However, no evaluation or paper document can describe what it is like for students to have their disability.

The student’s personal experience with their disability is their own. No other person experiences their issue as they do, and no other person can give a description of that experience than the student, which is incredibly valuable information. However, the poor ability to explain a learning disability is a pervasive issue and can sometimes complicate or hinder the process.

The Interactive Process This is not an IEP meeting

If you need help with self-advocacy, we have a program designed specifically for college and the interactive process.

It’s Collaborative

Collaboration is the hallmark of the interactive process. The title says it all. It’s interactive. The student and Accessibility staff work together to determine if a disability exists, what barriers the student experiences, and what accommodations make sense to provide access. The student and staff collaborate and come up with an individualized plan for them. Yes, there are many students with similar issues, but each may need different accommodations.

Each student’s needs are evaluated individually because the same problem may present differently in each person. Accessibility staff is there to work with each student to find out what works best for them. Fair warning, accessibility staff will only approve reasonable accommodations and not alter fundamental components of a course or lower academic standards. So, don’t ask for flowers for each test or that the lowest test grade be dropped for each class, and you should be fine. 

Accessibility staff will ask about a wide range of experiences and contexts. Staff may ask bout how your disability may impact classes, residence life, home, online classes, homework, studying, and time management. They may even concentrate on those contexts that most first-year students experience. 

Whatever your experience has been with your IEP team (and I’ve heard some horror stories), the collaborative nature of meeting with college disability staff is none of those things. It’s not a fight or a struggle, nor a challenge. So, don’t expect one. Are you seeing how the interactive process is not an IEP meeting?

It informs you of the next steps and responsibilities.

Disability staff is there to help and facilitate what reasonable accommodations are needed. However, there is much to learn about student responsibilities and what a student should expect after the meeting. Disability staff should briefly explain these to you. If there is a lack of time in that meeting, they may have a handout or email you the information. If that is the case, make sure you read it. Here are some questions to ask at the end of that meeting.

How will instructors be notified of my accommodations?

How do I use test accommodations? Is there a testing center?

How far in advance can I schedule my tests at the testing center?

If I have a problem with one of my accommodations, with whom do I speak?

If there is a problem with one of my instructors implementing my accommodations, how do I handle that, and who do I notify?

If one of my accommodations gets denied, what is the process to appeal?

What supports are available to me, like the career center?

At the end of the meeting, you should have a good sense of the next steps and what the student needs to do. You may also have an awareness of other supports such as career services and academic supports like tutoring.

There may be similarities with IEP meetings, even the jargon. Having done both meetings. I can say that the interactive process is not an IEP meeting. Not at all. With good preparation and self-advocacy, the interactive process is about as easy as any meeting you could have. Can you say that about every IEP meeting you attended?

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. Nothing should be construed as legal advice. If you need legal advice consult a lawyer. Although I am a therapist, I’m not your therapist. Any accommodations mentioned may or may not fit for your specific disability needs. The interview with the disability services office is key to determining what disability accommodations are appropriate and reasonable for you. All the information contained is for educational and informational purposes only.

Here is a FREE resource to help you navigate the accommodations request process, take the mystery out of it and get clear on what you need.