Leveling the Playing Field: The Importance of Documentation

By: CLC Staff
Documentation of Disability

A necessary part of having any disability accommodated on campus is providing adequate documentation for that disability. Many organizations advocating for the disabled argue that this documentation shouldn’t be burdensome – that is, we shouldn’t be asking too much of the individual when it comes to proving their disability. Other groups maintain that thorough documentation is the only way to keep an even standard of accommodation, and ensure the accommodation is provided to those who truly deserve it. Understanding the purpose of documentation is essential to designing accommodations suitable for the student who is providing it.

What is Documentation?

Documentation itself, in these cases, is essentially a statement proving a “substantial limit to a major life activity.” Certainly the most crucial role of documentation is that it makes the holder eligible for accommodation in the first place. Institutions such as universities and colleges are not required by law to provide accommodations for disabled individuals unless they are explicitly notified of their limitations.  

Purposes of Documentation

An important purpose of documentation is to ensure the accommodations provided serve only to “level the playing field.” While we want to give everyone the same chance of success, we don’t want to create advantages for a certain group of people. It can be difficult to ascertain exactly how far modifications need to stretch in certain cases – administrators need to design their accommodations in just such a way that the entire process can be considered fair.

How much extra time does a student with an attention-deficit disorder require for an exam? How many extra chances does an individual with a learning disability receive? These are questions that need to be carefully addressed, and talking to experts on these matters is very much encouraged – the more well-informed a campus staff is, the better.


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Documentation of Disability: What Is Good Practice and What Can Be Legally Required?

Learn to distinguish between the two major types of accommodations, identify instances when documentation is required, and interpret the statutes and laws to guide decisions at your school in this on-demand seminar.


Another factor to consider is the burden these accommodations place on a school’s administration. A student asking for extra time on an exam, or perhaps a private room to write it in, seems a simple enough request. Yet as mentioned above, more and more students are submitting requests such as these, and a school may find itself running short on space and staff to accommodate them. Budgets are always a matter of concern, even at the largest institutions, and a school may find itself hard-pressed to provide sufficient note-takers, translators, or other such auxiliary accommodations.

 In a similar vein, it may seem easy to admit a dog into a student’s dormitory room if their particular situation is helped by the presence of a pet. But what about students living on the same floor with allergies, who have expected a pet-free area to live in? These matters go far beyond a yes or no decision – many accommodations often involve a great number of parties, all of whose needs must be accounted for.

Documentation Consistency

It is also possible that a student who has received a certain standard of accommodation in their previous years of schooling is suddenly asked, upon entering a four-year university program, for more documentation than they have been accustomed to giving. This can be frustrating for both the student, who may not have prepared such documents before, and the administration, who must do their best to accommodate the student without abandoning their process. Striving for consistency in document requirements should be a topic of importance for not just postsecondary institutions but lower levels of schooling as well. If a student is well-versed in the documentation process in high school, it will make their transition to college or university much easier.    

Finding a Balance

With the recent increased focus on making such accommodations widely available, there is some worry that students who don’t truly require modifiers to succeed are taking advantage of the relaxed requirements in order to make things easier for themselves. While this is a viable concern, it shouldn’t mask the struggles students with disabilities undergo when trying to achieve success in a standard framework. When it comes to documentation, we must try to strike a balance between making it accessible and making it effective. The goal is a level playing field, and it’s on campus administrators to see that goal through.

Do you have anything to add to this discussion? What are some concerns about documentation at your school? Share in the comments below.

Sources: Documentation of Disability: What is Good Practice and What Can Be Legally Required? – Laura Rothstein; Supplemental Notes – Laura Rothstein.

Posted in Student Rights

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