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LaDonna Bridges, Advising Students with Disabilities Commission Chair




The number of students with documented disabilities - physical, cognitive, psychiatric or medical - has been steadily increasing on campuses across the country. A 2004 study by the Department of Education found that students with disabilities account for nearly 11 percent of the student population, a 2 percent increase from 2000. The recent passage of the ADA Amendment Act of 2008 has many campus disability service providers wondering if the numbers will continue to rise in the coming years. Advisors are likely to encounter an increasing number of students with disabilities as well.

Two laws ensure access to higher education for students with disabilities: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Non-discrimination and reasonable accommodation are two core rights for individuals with disabilities. To qualify as having a disability, an individual must have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, have record of such an impairment, or be regarded as having an impairment. In the years since the ADA was passed, a series of Supreme Court decisions has narrowed the definition of disability. More time was spent in legal challenges determining whether a disability was substantial rather than whether discrimination occurred or a reasonable accommodation was denied. The ADA Amendment Act (ADAAA) of 2008, which became law in January 2009, was a move by Congress to return to a broader definition of disability, as outlined in the Rehab Act of 1973 and as intended by the ADA in 1990. The ADAAA will shift focus back to provision of reasonable accommodations and accessibility.

Although no one can predict with certainty the impact of the ADA Amendment Act on higher education, one of the most notable changes is the expansion of the list of major life activities. Reading, concentrating and thinking are now included along with caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, communicating and working. Bodily functions considered major life activities were amended to include normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, immune system and reproductive functions. This exhaustive list leads many disability service providers and others responsible for determining reasonable accommodations to conclude that the number of students seeking accommodations is likely to increase.

The exclusion of mitigating measures when considering the presence of a disability is another significant change resulting from the ADA Amendment Act. Mitigating measures, as a rule, reduce the impact of the impairment on an individual's functioning. For example, a psychiatric condition may qualify an individual as having a disability even though the individual is functional with proper medication use and has not had an acute episode in many years. While mitigating measures cannot disqualify an individual from being considered disabled, the positive and negative impacts of mitigating measures can be applied to determine reasonable accommodations.

While the ADAAA broadens the definition of disability, it does not impact the process of determining reasonable accommodations. In no circumstance is an institution forced to fundamentally alter the nature of its programs or services. Students will be required to self-disclose, to provide qualified documentation, to request accommodation, and to self-advocate. Nonetheless, it is conceivable that the passage of the ADAAA will result in disability service providers spending more time in deliberative and interactive processes with students to determine reasonable accommodations.

While advisors do not need to know the intricacies of these laws, they would be well served to know the basics and to understand the framework within which many students attend college. Advisors should first and foremost have knowledge of and a relationship with the campus office responsible for receiving documentation and determining accommodations. The campus's ADA officer - who may not be the same as the disability services coordinator - is another important contact for advisors. As most documentation is considered confidential, advisors should not ask a student for documentation directly but instead put the student in contact with the appropriate offices.

Although the advisor may not determine academic accommodations, the advisor's relationship with a student with a disability is crucial to the student's success. Students with disabilities may need special considerations when scheduling classes or choosing course formats; they may need course substitutions or referrals to other campus services. Advisors should establish an advising atmosphere that is disability friendly.

A few considerations can go a long way in facilitating the advisor relationship with a student with disabilities:

  • Asynchronous advising may be helpful for a student who has a psychological or health disability. A request by a student to exchange emails in lieu of one-on-one meetings may not be an unreasonable request by some students. Students who require a personal care attendant may be dependent on others' schedules, requiring more flexibility than other advisees.
  • Advisor offices should be physically accessible for students in a wheelchair or with a visual impairment. In addition to a welcoming atmosphere, the office should be free of clutter and easy to navigate. If the advisor's office is not accessible, the advising location needs to be changed.
  • Self advocacy is important for all college students to learn, but it is particularly important for students with disabilities. Advisors can provide guidance and recommendations for students about working with faculty and participating in co-curricular activities on campus.

Advisors are uniquely positioned to support students with disabilities and awareness of changes in the law, such as with the ADA Amendment Act, are important. In July, NACADA will release the 2nd edition of the Advising Students with Disabilities monograph. The ADA Amendment Act is only one important topic that will be addressed through this publication. Intrusive advising strategies, working with psychiatric disabilities, meeting the unique needs of veterans, and creating universal access for all students are a sampling of chapters in the timely monograph.

LaDonna Bridges
Framingham State College

Cite this article using APA style as: Bridges, L. (2009, June). ADA amendment act: What advisors need to know. Academic Advising Today, 32(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2009 June 32:2


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.