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- Universal Design
As a public institution, Fitchburg State University is committed to the principles of equity, access and excellence in higher education.
Meeting the needs of our diverse spectrum of learners may require some flexibility or adaptability on the part of instructors. However, this does not require that faculty alter their teaching objectives or compromise academic standards. It simply means that we must provide all qualified students with equitable opportunities to engage in and benefit from their university experience at Fitchburg State.
Academic accommodations insure equitable access to the teaching and learning environment for all qualified students. Providing accommodations to a student registered with our office is an obligation of the university, as well as an obligation of faculty members at the institution. Although federal and state laws mandate this obligation, our shared values as a university community also embrace the spirit of access and equity for our diverse spectrum of learners.
We would like to challenge you to lead by example. Consider moving beyond access and reach for excellence by incorporating aspects of universal design into the teaching methods and activities that you elect to use in your course. Since we all learn differently, the universal design approach promises to maximize learning outcomes for all.
Universal design is based upon the premise that alternatives to traditional instruction and assessment should be made available and accessible to all students. This serves to enhance the learning opportunities for individuals from diverse backgrounds, those with varied learning approaches, and individuals with a range of abilities and disabilities.
Many of you already incorporate aspects of universal design into your courses. Examples include:
- Posting course materials and lecture notes on Blackboard for all students to access throughout the semester
- Providing feedback on essays and then allowing students to resubmit their materials after improvements have been made
- Using several shorter length exams throughout the semester as opposed to one or two high stakes tests
- Creating podcasts so that students can replay lecture material to capture important points that they might have missed in class
- Using multiple modalities to teach complex constructs (video/audio, text, drama, the internet, etc.)
- Reading aloud anything that is written on a whiteboard of posted on a PowerPoint slide
- Providing verbal descriptions of diagrams or pictures used to convey a concept
As a university community, we value diversity, especially in the way that it enhances learning. Let us continue to work together in creative ways to reflect this value in all that we do. We look forward to hearing your success stories!
The Legal World of Students with Disabilities
Everybody benefits when colleges serve students with disabilities
By Paul D. Grossman
Note: The author grant's permission to copy, reproduce, distribute and post this article for any not-for-profit educational purpose provided that the article is reproduced in its entirety. Any reproduction must include citation to Academe and the notation that the article was not reviewed or approved by the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. Cite as: Paul D. Grossman, Making Accommodations: The Legal World of Students with Disabilities, 87 Academe: Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors, 41-46 (November-December 2001).
The law requires colleges and universities to make special arrangements for students with disabilities, but not by lowering academic standards.
For more than twenty years, Paul Grossman has been the chief regional attorney of the San Francisco office of the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. He is also adjunct professor of disability law at the University of California 's Hastings College of Law. Recently, for his work in the field of students with disabilities, the author received honors from the Department of Education, the Association for Higher Education and Disability, and the California Association of Post-Secondary Educators of Persons with Disabilities. He wrote this article entirely in his private capacity. Neither of his employers reviewed or approved the text.
BY PAUL D. GROSSMAN
My brother sat in the wheelchair he had used for the past five years, ever since cancer had reached his spine in 1991. As a teacher and a disability lawyer, I was curious to find out whether he regretted entering and persevering through law school well after he understood that his cancer would never remit. His response to my query was remarkably clear. Attending law school had been one of the wisest choices in his life. As his body gradually lost the physical indicia of life-eating, sex, and mobility-he remained a human being, affirmed by his ability to think, learn, and persuade. Only his deep faith matched the opportunity to learn in sustaining his spirit through an otherwise terrible journey to the end of his life.
My brother entered Rutgers School of Law in 1992 and died shortly after his 1996 admission to the New Jersey Bar. Had he wasted a seat at a fine, competitive law school, or had he exemplified for students and faculty alike the most inherent and fundamental value of engaging in higher learning? Had his exclusive reliance on the Internet and computers to conduct legal research, without being able physically to bring a book down from a shelf, demonstrated the irrelevance of paper media or merely lowered academic standards? In the competitive environment of law school, was it unfair that he got extra time to complete his examinations? Had his class discussed whether the law was an effective tool for addressing the biggest barrier he faced to completing his internship: snow?
Before adoption of America 's antidiscrimination statutes related to disability, most institutions of higher education were conforming participants in a society that, by indifference, prejudice, or structure, excluded individuals with disabilities from nearly every aspect of human endeavor. The questions raised by my brother's circumstances were not even available for observation or discussion in the classroom.
Several federal laws protect students with disabilities from discrimination by institutions of postsecondary education; the primary ones are Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), which applies to all colleges that receive federal financial assistance, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which applies to three primary groups: employers; government entities, such as state universities; and private entities that serve the public. Those who see the connection between disability law and federal civil rights laws will find the path to understanding disability law a great deal easier to follow. We desegregate our schools to remove the stigma that comes from enforced separation and to bring to all students the advantages of diversity in the classroom.
"Academic adjustments and reasonable modifications" and the provision of "auxiliary aides and services" are important tools for desegregating institutions and extending equal educational opportunity to the disability community. These devices, commonly called "reasonable accommodations," have had a considerable impact on who participates in higher education. Academic adjustments include classroom and testing modifications, such as extra time on examinations. Auxiliary aids and services include practices that create access to information for persons with sensory impairments, such as providing signers for students who are deaf and readers for students who are blind. Students may not be charged for accommodations to which they are entitled by law.
Section 504 and the ADA require that students with disabilities have equal access to information and to the avenues of communication, including Websites operated by colleges, other Internet resources, distance education programs, and the like. When the educational institution involved is a government entity, the ADA requires that the students with disabilities are to be provided communication "as effective as" that provided to nondisabled students. "Communication" has been defined as the "transfer of information."
In construing the conditions under which communication is as effective as that provided to nondisabled persons, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has held that the three basic components of effectiveness are timeliness of delivery, accuracy of the translation, and provision in a manner and medium appropriate to the significance of the message and the abilities of the individual with the disability.
Under certain circumstances, the failure to provide a reasonable accommodation to a student with a disability is a violation of law, putting in jeopardy, among other things, an institution's receipt of federal financial assistance. On the other hand, misunderstanding what the duty to provide reasonable accommodations means is a source of suspicion and fear. Some, for example, worry that providing accommodations will force colleges and universities to lower academic standards and foist onto society a generation of unqualified professionals, or simply compel faculty to violate their own concepts of fair treatment of all students.
Properly understood and implemented, however, disability laws will lead to none of these feared outcomes. In fact, students with disabilities are required to meet the "essential" "academic" and "technical" standards of the college or university, with or without reasonable accommodation.
The term "essential" serves to ensure that colleges and universities need never "fundamentally alter" their programs of instruction to accommodate students with disabilities. Federal courts have readily upheld insistence that such students meet "academic" standards (for example, a requirement for all students to maintain a certain GPA) and "technical" standards (for example, a requirement that all dental students demonstrate fine motor dexterity). Moreover, persons whose disabilities manifest a "direct threat" to the health and safety of themselves or others may be excluded from an educational program. On the other hand, a student with a disability may be permitted a year longer to earn a degree than is accorded to students under the published rules of the college. By instructing colleges to distinguish carefully between what is essential and what is tangential, the courts have used Section 504 and the ADA to create equal educational opportunity for the disability community without lowering academic standards.
Degree of Deference
A college may deny a student's accommodation request for several reasons. First, an institution can decline requests that represent a fundamental alteration in the nature of an academic program, such as excusing a premed student from laboratory classes. Second, a college may offer less costly but effective alternatives to the accommodations proposed by students. Third, an institution need not incur an undue economic or administrative bur-den in accommodating students with disabilities. Fourth, it need not bear the expense of personal services. But, when needed, postsecondary colleges must allow individuals to use "personal attendants" for activities such as feeding, dressing, or bathing. The courts and the Office of Civil Rights accord colleges considerable deference in determining which accommodations will or will not entail a fundamental alteration in the nature of a program. Several factors affect the degree of deference accorded a college in any given instance. Courts are unlikely to accord any deference to a college's decisions when there is prevailing evidence of overt bias or retaliation. Similarly, little deference is accorded individuals in academia who reach conclusions they are not qualified to reach, such as a mathematics teacher deciding that an individual is not really disabled.
On the other hand, considerable deference is accorded to institutions that promulgate well-developed procedures for considering and implementing requests for accommodations. Such a procedure should define responsibilities, draw on appropriate expertise, and make careful and deliberate distinctions as to when accommodations constitute a fundamental program alteration and when they do not. The Office of Civil Rights encourages ongoing communication between student and college at every step of the accommodation process. This "interactive process" is consistent with the duties the courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have widely required of employers.
Colleges that automatically, without analysis, implement every documented request for an accommodation may contribute to prejudices, lower academic standards, and fuel backlash by students and faculty that cannot be easily dispelled. The decision to deny an accommodation should not, however, be taken lightly. Highly respected institutions have found themselves in serious legal straits for devoting insufficient thought to the conclusion that a requested accommodation should be denied.
On several occasions, the courts and the Office of Civil Rights have offered guidance on what the accommodation process should entail. In a lawsuit under Section 504, a medical student sought, as an accommodation, substitution of essay for multiple-choice examinations. Defending itself in court for having denied the student's request, the college was required to demonstrate to the court that "the relevant officials of the institution considered alternative means [of examining the student], their feasibility, cost and effect on the academic program and came to a rationally justifiable conclusion that available alternatives would result either in lowering academic standards or requiring substantial program alteration." In effect, the court concluded that colleges were entitled to deference in academic decisions, but only after such deference was earned by engaging in an affirmative and thorough consideration process. The court's reference to "relevant officials" is also important. The court used this term to highlight its expectation that both faculty and academic administrators would be involved in this process.
I am unaware of any case in which a postsecondary institution lost in court for failing to implement a particular requested accommodation after it had engaged in the interactive process, provided the plaintiff several other accommodations, and denied the contested accommodation(s) on the basis of thoughtful deliberations by qualified individuals.
Legally, the accommodation process begins when a student identifies himself or herself as an individual with a disability and asks for assistance. As long as the college or university gives reasonable notice of how to request help, the courts and the Office of Civil Rights have been fairly consistent in placing the responsibility on the student to initiate the accommodation process. Only under very limited circumstances is there retroactive consideration of how a student was treated prior to requesting accommodation. Thus, students are generally "stuck" with the grades they received before asking for an accommodation.
An effective accommodation process begins at a central point, usually the disabled student services office or provider. The college or university should clearly identify in student handbooks and similar publications the location and title of the person whom students should contact. All faculty, adjunct teachers, counselors, and administrators should be able to recognize a request for accommodation and know where to refer students for consideration of their concerns. It is not unlawful for faculty members to informally accommodate students without involving a disabled student services office. But such professors run a risk of learning the true meaning of the phrase "no good deed goes unpunished." Faculty members are well advised at least to inform their disabled student services providers of whatever arrangements have been established.
Students need not use "magic words," like reference to the ADA , to commence the accommodation process. Revelation of a disability and concern about its relationship to academic performance is the most common way in which students raise issue that need to be referred to a disabled student services office. Faculty members are not required to discover or point out to a student that academic deficiencies may reflect the impact of a disability. Students should be treated as adults with concomitant privacy rights. They should never be coerced into engaging in the accommodation process. No laws are violated, however, when a faculty member suggests to a student that he or she consider engaging in the disability assessment and accommodation process.
The next step in the accommodation process ordinarily is for the student to document that he or she has a disability and needs an accommodation. This leads to the single most complex and litigated question in disability law: who is an individual with a disability?
Since this subject is best left to the disabled student services providers and diagnosticians, I will not cover it extensively here.
Although this article focuses on students whose disabilities make them eligible for accommodations, it is important to know that Section 504 and the ADA are antidiscrimination statutes and provide protection even to students who may not be eligible for accommodations. Specifically, Section 504 and the ADA cover individuals believed by the college to be disabled and individuals with a record of a disability. A student meeting either of these definitions, as well as a student with a current disability who may be eligible for an accommodation, is protected from intentional discrimination, such as a hostile environment on the basis of disability, and from exclusion from a program on the basis of stereotypes.
For the purposes of obtaining an accommodation, the regulations implementing Section 504 and the language of the ADA contain the same definition of an individual with a disability. These laws provide that a "disability" is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. "Impairment," "major life activity," and "substantial" are all terms of art, and each must be documented.
Colleges may require a student seeking accommodation to provide sound documentation for each element of the definition of disability as well as for the need for any proposed accommodation. Documentation can be test results, clinical observations, psychoeducational histories, standard medical diagnostic reports, or any other written materials provided by someone with pertinent expertise. With the consent of the students, a telephone call from a disabled student services officer to a diagnostician may also be a quick and productive way to resolve conflicts, ambiguities, and shortcomings in written data. The evidence of disability and the need for a specific accommodation should be logically connected. (For example, it is not self-evident why an individual with lower-body mobility impairment needs double time on an examination.)
Qualified professionals should prepare the documentation, whose age should be appropriate to the disability. Persons with disabilities that change frequently may have to update their documentation every few years. Persons whose disabilities are relatively stable would not be expected to update it as often.
Arbitrary, unnecessarily costly, poorly explained, or last-minute changes in the documentation required raise concerns for the courts. Further, privacy interests must be respected. Although meeting the standards of Section 504 and the ADA may demand considerable documentation, care must be taken not to seek documentation beyond the scope of what is necessary to make an accommodation determination. For example, to establish the impairment of depression, it is not necessary for the college to know that the depression was originally induced by child abuse.
Obtaining documentation, the costs of which the student must almost always bear, can be expensive. Institutions can help by providing students and their diagnosticians with reasonable notice of what documentation is expected. When the institution rejects documentation, the student should be told why so that he or she can determine whether it makes sense to seek further testing and additional documentation.
Unfortunately, many secondary schools do not explain to their students that the documentation that established their eligibility for services from elementary and secondary schools may be insufficient to establish a disability with a postsecondary institution. Faculty should therefore respond to the initial expectations of new students with some flexibility and promptly refer them to the disabled student services office.
With regard to effective accommodation, the expertise of both faculty members and the disabled student services office should be made available to the student. Accommodation expertise is not easy to come by. In academia, the classroom teacher or department chair will often be uniquely in control of information essential to identifying an accommodation that will not fundamentally alter the nature of an academic program, reduce academic standards, or place an undue burden on the college.
Types of Accommodation
Most students who document their disability and need for an accommodation will receive one without conflict or dispute. But no absolutely accurate statement can be made about whether a particular accommodation is required by law. The best I can do is provide what are admittedly broad generalizations based on considerable experience in the field. For students who have given notice and provided sufficient documentation, the following accommodations are likely to be sustained: time and a half to double time on examinations; moderately reduced course loads; extra time to complete a degree program to the extent curricular continuity is not unreasonably impaired; limited leaves of absence for medical treatment and recovery; registration assistance; assistance in applying for financial aid; classroom modifications, such as preferential seating, taping, and note-taking assistance; priority in housing for students who need a single or a large room; and priority in parking for students with mobility impairments and certain psychological disabilities.
Accommodations less likely to be sustained, but within the range of accommodations that may be required in a particular set of circumstances, are more than double time on examinations, long-term leaves of absence, course substitution or waiver, and reduced participation and attendance in the classroom. Accommodations unlikely to be sustained are unlimited time for examinations, unlimited time for degree completion, unlimited leaves of absence, permission to entirely avoid attendance expectations applied to students in general, reassignment to another teacher, provision of examinations or instructional services off campus except when generally provided to students, individualized instruction or tutoring except when commonly provided to students, and restructuring of the curriculum to address the student's individual learning style.
In my experience, modifications to examinations, particularly extra time to complete them, rank first in triggering faculty concerns about treating all students fairly. The objective of providing individuals extra time on examinations is to mea-sure what students have learned rather than the impact of their disability. When a student's performance speed is a skill a professor intends to measure, extra time on an examination would not be an appropriate accommodation. Thus one federal court held that a medical student with a disability may be required to demonstrate emergency room skills under the same rigorous timed conditions as anyone else.
A recent federal district court decision concerning an individual with a learning disability who was denied extra time on a bar examination, has faced up to the issue of fairness more directly than any preceding opinion. The court wrote:
[M]uch of the [Bar's] bias appears to arise from the assumption that giving extra time to applicants with learning disabilities gives them an unfair advantage over other applicants. . . . [T]his assumption is belied by research showing that extra time does not have a significant impact on the performance of individuals who do not have learning disabilities. . . . Further, as [the Bar] concedes, the bar [examination] is not a reading rate test. [The court is] convinced that extra time provided to learning disabled applicants merely levels the playing field and allows these individuals to be tested on their knowledge; it does not provide them with an unfair advantage.
It is instructive to look at how the Supreme Court recently approached the subject of fairness and accommodation when the issue arose in one of the most high-stakes, competitive, and prestigious events in the public eye: a golf championship. Professional golfer Casey Martin, who has a debilitating mobility impairment, challenged a long-standing rule of the Professional Golfer's Association (PGA) prohibiting the use of carts in championship tournaments. After reviewing expert testimony, the Court concluded that the essence of golf was "shot-making," not walking, and that providing Martin with a cart did not give him a competitive advantage. The Court was particularly troubled by the fact that the PGA had rejected Martin's request out of hand, failing to take an individualized look at the impact of his disability on endurance and mobility in comparison to other players.
Benefits to the Academic Community
No doubt, Martin's case has served as the source of lively discussion in law schools, but more important is its coverage in the popular press. His presence on the fairway juxtaposes the condition of disability with the achievement of athletic excellence. He is a "stereotype buster." In so many instances, we need only give the disability community an opportunity to cross the threshold, and disabled individuals will teach us ways we never envisioned to accomplish critical tasks and professional responsibilities. My brother taught me how to use the computer as a "virtual" law library. A student, whose speaking facility was limited by advanced multiple sclerosis, showed me how he could "speak" by using a keyboard and a scrolling electronic sign board placed in the front of the classroom. Section 504 and the ADA should be welcomed for the opportunities they offer to postsecondary education for rewarding self-examination. No other set of laws so entreats academia to take its own temperature, examine its traditions, and thoughtfully deliberate about which of its standards are essential and which are merely unexamined habits. Whether from the insights we achieve from integration or from self-reflection, the unconventional, nontraditional, innovative ways in which individuals with disabilities accomplish tasks place us on new paths that benefit us all. The term "universal design" signifies inclusive planning, structures, tools, and methods of teaching that take into account the range of physical and mental characteristics that spans human diversity. Because flexibility and pro-vision of alternative approaches to the same objective are an inherent element of universal design, it gives all individuals, disabled or not, the freedom to choose the paths that best serve them without marginalizing them through "special" or segregated treatment.
In architecture, universal design yields ramps that help every person pushing a stroller or pulling a suitcase on wheels. Universal design has also fostered Web authoring tools that allow us simultaneously to communicate on the Internet through the visual, auditory, and tactile senses. More universal benefits are on the horizon. In instruction, universal design unsettles the assumption that every-one who is qualified to attend a particular college is identically and evenly endowed across all of their intellectual domains. Our colleges are composed of auditory, visual, linear, and intuitive thinkers. Some students are most adept at accessing and retaining information, while others' greatest strength is in how they process information, however it is acquired. How many of us can say that our teaching methodologies are sufficiently broad to address these forms of human variation? Inclusion of individuals with disabilities crystallizes these issues and entreats us to revisit time-honored teaching methodologies. For example, facing attrition by bright students with learning disabilities, some mathematics professors were inspired to develop new ways to teach mathematics that benefit all students.
And there is more with regard to the content of our curricula. The rich literature, art, and history of the disability community are ripe for addition to academia's exploration of the human condition. Creating equal educational opportunity by providing reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities is a journey we need not fear. Indeed, it may be embraced for the opportunities it presents to us all.
Internships in Higher Education: Promoting Success for
Students with Disabilities
Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2001, Volume 21 No. 1
Lori W. Briel & Elizabeth Evans Getzel
Virginia Commonwealth University
This article examines how internships in higher education can benefit all students as they prepare for their careers beyond graduation and particularly students with disabilities. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, universities have a responsibility to insure equal access and accommodation for students with disabilities during the internship process. Two particular issues faced by students with disabilities that have been identified through a review of recent case law include (1) meeting academic and technical standards for a program and (2) disclosing their disabilities and requesting accommodations. Key principles and support strategies which address the issues and concerns of internships for students with disabilities, developed as part of a comprehensive career-planning program for postsecondary students with disabilities at Virginia Commonwealth University, are discussed. Internships in higher education are gaining in popularity. Both students and faculty recognize the potential value of internships as a significant part of preparation for careers beyond graduation. In the current job market, employers are not only looking for workers with a college degree, but workers who can apply their academic knowledge. Ideally, the workers also have practical work experience in which they demonstrated their abilities (Reardon, Lenz, & Folsom, 1998). Students in post secondary education are finding that participation in applied learning experiences such as internships and cooperative education programs provide opportunities to build a network of contacts, which become invaluable in the job search process, as well as gain the necessary practical experience to eventually be successful in their careers. (Cates-McIver, 1998).
Impact on Career Development and Academic Performance
Internship experiences can have a positive impact on the career development of participants. These opportunities enable students to test their career interests, enhance their career goals, gain transferable skills that are sought by employers, and increase their networking opportunities (Chambliss, Rinde, & Miller, 1996; Carter & Franta, 1995; Davis, Steen, & Rubin, 1987). Internships can also assist students when seeking employment after graduation (Getzel, Briel &Kregel, 2000). Students who engage in several career related work experiences while in college, including internships, are able to secure employment more quickly after graduation, are more likely to be employed within their field of study, and are generally more satisfied in their current work positions than graduates with no career related experience (Kysor & Pierce 2000). Participation in work experience or internship programs can contribute to students' academic performance. For secondary students, work-based learning has been found to motivate most students and has had a positive effect on students' academic performance, graduation rates, and enrollment in post-secondary education (Jackson & Wirt, 1996). Results from an evaluation of the Boeing Company's Summer Internship Program for juniors, seniors, and first year college students indicated that the internship motivated students to stay in school (Wang & Owens, 1995). In addition, a comprehensive review of trends and effects of paid employment among college students revealed that student employment has a positive correlation with academic performance as long as the job is closely related to career interests and aspirations (Stern & Nakata, 1991.
Impact on Future Employment Opportunities
Job related work experience has been identified by employers as being very important when recruiting college graduates for entry-level employment (Reardon, et al., 1998). Participation in internships also positively influences the ability to obtain an interview through resume screening (Perry & Goldberg, 1998). Further, with technological changes in the economy and corporate trends supporting downsizing and restructuring, many businesses actually use cooperative education, internships, and part-time jobs to provide an economical way to screen, train, and develop potential full-time employees (Brooks & Greene, 1998; Carter & Franta, 1995. The business sector is becoming more invested in the outcomes of higher education to prepare a future workforce to meet their recruiting demands. As business environments advance technologically and respond to globalization, employers look for individuals who can solve problems, work as a member of a team and be proactive in their work. Higher education is being challenged by the business community to include more opportunities for undergraduate students to gain practical experience through internships, be actively engaged in the learning process, and address the needs of the current and future business environment (American Council on Education, 1997; Oblinger & Verville, 1998).
Career Related Experiences for Students with Disabilities
Significant numbers of college students with disabilities have little or no meaningful work experience or have difficulty recognizing the influence of their disability on the career decision making process (Luzzo, Hitchings, & Howland, 1995). Although many college students with disabilities understand how their disabilities impact their learning in education, a large number of students are unable to explain how their disabilities could affect them on the job (Hitchings et al. as cited in Aune & Kroeger, 1997).
Internships and cooperative work opportunities can facilitate career preparation and development for students with disabilities (Baggett, 1993; Mazurek & Shoemaker, 1997). These experiences are particularly helpful to students who may be undecided about their career choices and may enhance the students' confidence in their own capacities to select appropriate careers (Enright, 1996). By providing ample opportunities to acquire work experience prior to graduation, while still in the protected environment of internships, students can confirm their career preferences, develop employment histories, and identify the possible services and supports that will maximize their opportunities for employment success (Getzel & Kregel, 1996). Furthermore, internship and cooperative education programs can help students to address some of the barriers they will face when seeking employment. Simultaneously, the attitudes of employers about the potential of individuals with disabilities can be influenced, and even changed (Burgstahler, 1995a).
Internships provide an excellent opportunity to assess the current and future support needs for individuals with disabilities (Getzel, et al, 2000). It is important that students with disabilities have access to necessary supports as they transition to an internship setting to acquire their professional skills. University faculty, disability support services, career advisors, rehabilitation counselors, and site supervisors must work with students and assist them with the identification of immediate and future support needs. Ideally, they coordinate the provision of services during this critical period.
Internship Access and Accommodations
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, with its civil rights provisions in Section 504, mandates colleges and universities receiving federal funds to insure equal treatment for individuals with disabilities during the recruitment period, the admission process, and the term of enrollment (29 USCA Sec.794). Section 504 imposes a responsibility to reasonably accommodate an otherwise qualified student with a disability unless such an accommodation would fundamentally alter the program or constitute an undue burden. Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 also prohibits discrimination against qualified people with disabilities and has extended coverage to include places of employment, state and local government, public accommodations, transportation, and telecommunications (42 USCA sec.12101).
An internship site suggests some overlap regarding coverage under the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Varying views exist regarding how employers and universities share responsibility to ensure that the civil rights of students with disabilities are not violated. Scott, Wells, & Hanebrink (1997) outline specific responsibilities for employers, students and universities, and conclude that the institution has primary responsibility for students who are participating in its programs (whether on or off campus). The institution has the ultimate liability for the provision of reasonable accommodation and is responsible for ensuring auxiliary aids for students with disabilities. However, from their experiences within the occupational therapy profession, these authors have found that the internship site generally assumes the duty for providing accommodation on the site. Provision may also be made through vocational rehabilitation services or other community resources. The university is responsible for providing guidance to the internship site regarding the provision of academic adjustments or accommodations, and must monitor what happens in that environment to ensure that no discrimination occurs against students and that students are provided with all necessary accommodations.
Career advisors have expressed interest in the clarification of responsibility for the provision of accommodations for students with disabilities at internship settings. Preliminary efforts to delineate the separate and distinct roles and responsibilities of university representatives and prospective employers have been developed by the University of Minnesota's General Counsel (LRP Publications, 1999). According to these administrative guidelines, the university is responsible for providing accommodations with "for-credit" internships or off-campus work study jobs. The employer is responsible for providing accommodations for non-credit, non-paid, and paid internships. With the exchange of money, the employment relationship between the student and the internship site takes precedence over the student relationship with the university. However, if the internship is both paid and "for-credit," it is recommended that the student, disability service provider, and a representative from the internship site agree up front who will pay for accommodations.
Institutions of higher education are required to provide admission to those individuals with disabilities who are otherwise qualified. When applying this definition for admission to an internship site, field placement sites should develop standards and procedures for determining qualified interns that will be used as a basis for admission for all students who apply. Technical standards are defined as "all nonacademic criteria that are essential to participate in the program in question" (Scott et al., 1997, p.17). These standards and requirements are to be determined by each institution and in collaboration with the university department, institution, office of services for students with disabilities, and legal counsel. Standards are to be applied to all students equally. Institutions must be able to establish that the standards are necessary and essential. In addition, consideration should be given to the position that the university takes with respect to third-party intermediaries to assist persons with disabilities in meeting the requirements of the curriculum (Association of American Medical Colleges, 1993). In other words, when does the use of a third party to observe or interpret information potentially compromise the standards that the student must meet, to perform the essential functions of a program?
While the process to disclose a disability and request accommodations from faculty is sufficiently established in most post secondary settings, the process at an internship site is less clear. The very nature of an internship usually involves an additional site supervisor and possibly a field liaison to coordinate the internship program. In some instances, students must contact site supervisors, complete applications, and interview for positions. The internship situations are very similar to the ones students are likely to experience in competitive employment settings. Students with disabilities must be familiar with the responsibilities for disclosure that are outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act. This may be a student's first experience with disclosing a disability in a community setting. College students with disabilities are often not prepared to arrange job accommodations or environmental modifications (Brodwin, Parker, & De La Garza, 1996). Too often, disclosure occurs after a student receives a failing grade (Ashland Regional Technology Center, 1997).
Strategies for Creating Internship Experiences
Many students with disabilities will require little or no assistance as they complete their academic programs and enter the workforce. For those students, specialized work site assistance is not required. Other students may benefit from the workshops or ongoing programs sponsored by a college or university's office of career planning and placement for the university community at large. For some individuals, specialized assistance may be essential. It is important that each student have access to the amount of internship or work experience assistance and support that they feel is necessary to attain their long-term career goals (Getzel & Kregel, 1996).
Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) has designed a program to enhance employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities prior to graduation. Students with disabilities are able to access services and supports to acquire internships in their field and maximize the use of university and community services. Students self-identify their need for assistance and direct the implementation of the services provided. To ensure that students with disabilities are able to maximize their internship experience, the VCU Career Connections Program staff emphasizes placement assistance, on-site strategies to facilitate learning, and the coordination of community supports. Examples of the range of supports provided to students are highlighted below.
Many students with disabilities benefit from the workshops and ongoing programs that the university's Office of Career Planning and Placement sponsors for the university community at large. Other students require specialized assistance, including referral to and placement services provided by the state or local rehabilitation agency, to secure and successfully complete an internship experience. It is important for universities to provide an array of services for students with disabilities, and in particular to consider site selection and student requests for accommodations.
The selection of an internship site may be a key factor in providing an optimal environment for learning for some post secondary students with disabilities. Differences in potential placements occur based on the nature of the work environment, the personality and management style of the site supervisor, and the responsibilities agreed upon between each site and academic supervisor. The university generally issues specific provisions for fulfilling academic requirements, and provides guidelines for site supervisors to develop work assignments and evaluate the on-site work of the students. Often, university faculty have established relationships with the site supervisor, are familiar with the style of supervision that is provided, and have approved the facility as an acceptable setting. This information can be very useful in determining a positive match between a student with a disability and a placement site.
It is important to choose an internship site that maximizes the strengths of each individual with a disability and can accommodate the student's learning style. Students must identify the most critical factor or factors in determining their ideal placements. For example, one student with a mental health disability functioned optimally in the morning hours and prioritized his site selection with one that offered this time slot. Although this factor limited the student's options, taking this particular factor into account was important for the student's growth, and his ability to learn and be successful. Another student with a traumatic brain injury selected a smaller setting that had a basic daily routine. This regular routine established a structure, which provided a solid foundation to develop professional skills.
Requests for Accommodations
If a student knows that he or she will require accommodations at the internship site, it is best to encourage the student to disclose to the site supervisor early in the process, or to give the field placement coordinator permission, in writing, to disclose after the placement has been made(Scott et al, 1997, p.46). One student, Susan, was majoring in mass communications and was seeking an internship with a radio reading service. Susan uses a wheelchair and also has a learning disability. The VCU Career Connections staff initially contacted the Director of the Reading Service to inquire about accessibility of the building. The student made arrangements to visit the internship site and found she was able to maneuver within the recording studio with minimal adjustments to the work setting and continued with the application process. Recommendations for accommodations from the university can be made to the site supervisor and ample time provided to coordinate access to assistive technology if necessary, make modifications in the work schedule, or make adjustments to assignments. For example, one student with a visual impairment requested a 17" computer monitor to increase his efficiency when using the Zoom Text software. An internship setting can be an optimal time to develop self-advocacy skills that will ensure success in future employment opportunities. The opportunity to practice disclosing a disability and requesting accommodations helped prepare this student for future employment (Getzel et al, 2000; Burgstahler, 1995b).
For those students requiring specialized support to secure an internship, the VCU Career Connections staff assisted students with developing resumes, contacting professional organizations, arranging informational interviews with identified companies, and attending job fairs. Staff provided extensive information regarding student rights and responsibilities under the ADA and also addressed individual disclosure concerns. For example, program staff worked with Steve, a student with an Attention Deficit Disorder, who expressed an interest in pursuing an internship in photography. He experienced difficulties with reading and writing and elected to not disclose his disability to employers. Staff assisted Steve in searching and identifying opportunities available through local classified ads and the Internet and recorded Steve's responses on several applications. An internship was secured at a local newspaper and the student took full advantage of the networking opportunities. The newspaper printed some of Steve's pictures, which he used to develop a portfolio for other photography jobs.
A wealth of strategies can be utilized to facilitate improving the rate of success of students with disabilities with regard to completing their internships. Supervising faculty should request initial feedback from site supervisors in the first several weeks of the internship, be familiar with optional instructional strategies to recommend, and be aware of additional resources to access, in order to support skill acquisition for students with disabilities. Initial Assessment The first 2-4 weeks of an internship provide an excellent opportunity to assess the need for future supports at the site, particularly for those students who are uncertain if any modifications at the site will be needed (Getzel et al, 2000). The site supervisor can be instrumental in identifying key areas in which the intern may benefit from supports. The university faculty and intern should receive initial feedback about the intern's attendance, organizational skills, initiative, professional coworker interactions, time management, and performance skills. During this initial period of the internship, relevant instructional strategies can be recommended, accommodations requested, or community supports arranged to ensure that the student is receiving effective training, and is also performing at the level expected at the internship site.
For example, one student with a traumatic brain injury was arriving late to his placement or reporting to the site on unscheduled days at a local hospital. Support was provided to explore alternative ways to follow a schedule, including use of a daily calendar, a two-alarm watch that displays days of the week, and a monthly wall calendar at home.
A second example concerns a student with a learning disability who was having difficulty completing written reports in a timely manner. The VCU Career Connections staff assisted this student with exploring effective compensatory strategies to enable her to organize material, synthesize details, and write using proper grammar. Some strategies that were implemented included the use of graphic organizers, writing software programs, and developing a framework for several reporting styles.
The use of a team approach is recommended for employers, faculty or students who are uncertain about how to address support needs. Having prior connections with vocational rehabilitation specialists to identify effective compensatory strategies or counselors familiar with assistive technology may have a positive impact on the successful completion of internship responsibilities. Often, assistive technology equipment can be loaned on a short-term basis or technology can be purchased that can move with the student from job to job as his or her career progresses.
Students often begin their internships with a period of observation and then move on to assume greater responsibilities. For many students, this transition to increased responsibility is an acceptable process, and a useful progression toward skill development. Other students with more significant disabilities may need additional support with skill acquisition. While the natural tendency of a site supervisor may be to extend the observation time for a student who is having difficulty, a more effective method is to modify the instructional approaches (Getzel et al, 2000).Effective instructional strategies are dependent on the learning style of the student, the targeted skill, the work setting, and availability of the site supervisor. Attention to the social nuances of the work environment and clear behavioral expectations may be needed. The strategies described in Table 1 proved effective for students participating in the VCU Career Connections Program.
Table 1: Effective Strategies for Students with Disabilities
Participating in Internship Programs
- Rearrange observation time to include short assignments within a demonstrated task.
- Involve the student in a task and give direct feedback on his or her contribution.
- Restructure routine to have repeated practice of a targeted skill.
- Model task and have student immediately repeat the same task.
- Assist student with breaking task into smaller components, rather than assigning one large project.
- Extend the learning time for initial skill acquisition.
- Role-play leadership activities or social interactions.
- Ensure student writes out steps to a skill.
- Identify stress management strategies and encourage use at the work site.
- Provide clear boundaries for coworker relationships.
- Videotape intern performance, review with intern, and provide constructive feedback.
These strategies are designed to provide increased structure for the student and to actively engage him or her in the learning process. Opportunities are also built in for the supervisor to give specific, immediate feedback to the student.
Several students with disabilities participating in the VCU Career Connections Program benefited from extensive, on-site supports in all areas of the internship process. The staff modified techniques and strategies used in supported employment to assist the students in successfully completing their internships and preparing them for employment. Support is given on site to facilitate communication between site supervisor, co-workers, and intern. In addition, staff members conduct task analyses to identify various skills, and eventually provide the necessary one-on-one training until skill acquisition is met. Assistance is also provided with identifying and coordinating effective accommodations for those students with no previous work history.
Bill, a senior majoring in exercise science, needed to complete a 400-hour internship to finish his bachelor’s degree. In high school, Bill was diagnosed with anxiety and depression and experienced debilitating mood swings. His college advisors did not anticipate Bill's challenging work behaviors because he completed his academic requirements with a solid GPA. These behaviors included fear of getting out of the car to report to the internship site, leaving the worksite when feeling stressed and reporting that he did not feel well, lack of communication with coworkers and the general public, and difficulty appropriately applying academic information when at the site. The VCU Career Connections staff provided one-on-one onsite support to identify and practice stress management strategies, develop appropriate social skills, and facilitate learning through task analyses, modeling, and repeated practice. Bill was able to successfully complete his internship hours and became employed in his field of study.
Linkage with Community Resources
Establishing connections with community resources can be an important and often essential component for successful placements for some students with disabilities. Knowing how to access assistive technology at the work site or obtain support to address behavioral issues related to disability can be critical issues that need to be resolved in order for students to fulfill their requirements. It is recommended that university personnel work closely with the Services for Students with Disabilities Office and Career Center counselors to establish relationships with key agencies for consultation. Contact with local vocational rehabilitation service directors provide a solid link to potential community resources.
For example, a deaf student was completing her final requirements at an internship site in the field of business and was working with colleagues who were unfamiliar with sign language. Program staff contacted the State Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and a TTY was loaned to the agency. In addition, sensitivity training sessions were conducted for coworkers. The non-profit employer had not anticipated the need for a TTY answering machine and the expense involved in the installation of the private telephone line. Coordination with the Department of Rehabilitative Services proved successful for addressing this concern.
Internship and work experience opportunities can be instrumental in shaping the career path for individuals with disabilities. Opportunities for students to explore areas of interest, experiment with effective accommodations, and make valuable connections with employers must be integrated into the college career planning process. For many students with disabilities, the first work experience paves the way for future career growth and advancement. It is critical that students with disabilities have access to individualized supports that will promote their learning and preparation for a professional career (Getzel & Kregel, 1996).
Work experience programs for students with disabilities provide opportunities for students to apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired to a work environment. The VCU Career Connections staff found that for a majority of the students participating in the program, their first real professional working experience occurred during their internship. Staff was able to work with students to resolve such issues as technology, disclosure of a disability, and work accommodations. In some cases, students who had successfully completed their academic studies were in jeopardy of not graduating because they were experiencing difficulties completing their internship program. In large part, this was due to the lack of exposure to work environments. The internship enabled these students to develop and implement strategies to determine what methods were most effective to successfully complete their requirements. As a result, the students were more prepared to begin a career in their chosen field having the knowledge and experience gained through their work experience.
Internship programs provide a critical link between the academic setting and the work environment to enable all students, particularly students with disabilities, to apply their knowledge and determine the appropriate work environments that best match their skills and abilities.
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The development of this manuscript was supported in part by University of Hawaii RRTC Grant No. H133B98003 from the U.S. Department of Education (NIDRR). The opinions expressed are those of the authors. No official endorsement from the U.S. Department of Education should be inferred.
- Commentary : Mike Hoenig
- University Hospital School; Iowa City, Iowa
Internships in Higher Education: Promoting Success for Students with Disabilities does a very good job of framing the importance of internships to students in general. The importance of networking and work experience to students with disabilities was very well recognized. The discussion of how best to help students with disabilities identify their accommodation needs is very helpful because it is important for the student to become self-confident enough to research,and then advocate for, the best solution. The discussion of responsibility for costs of accommodations was informative and the listing of support strategies was very good. The “troubleshooting" which the organization provides is particularly impressive.
- http://www.cast.org/research/udl/index.html - Universal Design for Learning
- http://www.washington.edu/doit/Resources/postsec.html - The Faculty Room
- http://www.tss.uoguelph.ca/uid/uidtipsheets.cfm - Faculty Tip Sheets
Resources/Clearinghouse/View-- Advising Students with Disabilities Articles/Advising-Students- with-Disabilities.aspx
- http://www.ap.buffalo.edu/idea - Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access