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Nikki Allen Dyer, Advising Students with Disabilities Commission Member


When someone mentions services for students with disabilities, advisors often think about what they know (or fear what they don’t know) about Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the ADA of 1990. In our litigious society, academic advisors whose primary roles do not specifically include working with students with disabilities may feel that they do not know enough about these laws and related student rights to adequately advise students with disabilities. Other advisors may feel that they do not know enough about various disabilities to be effective when advising these students. Further complicating the issue is the notion that campuses are prone to delineating themselves into discrete entities which can be disjointed and inflexible “silos” where providing academic advising to students with disabilities can be seen as “someone else’s job.”

Disability services staff members are often seen as “disability experts,” yet these same professionals may or may not be “advising experts.” As such, it is imperative that academic advisors strive to achieve competency in advising all students, including those with disabilities. The ability to adequately advise all students – to include those with disabilities – could be termed inclusive advising. So then, where does an advisor begin the quest to become an inclusive advisor? Start by becoming aware of how students’ rights, learning outcomes, and accommodations relate to the academic advising process.

Advisors know that advising is “a teaching and learning process” (NACADA, 2006, ¶ 9). As such, academic advising lends itself to fostering student learning outcomes that are specific to what students are able to know, value, and do as a result of the advising process. Such outcomes may include advisees being able to “craft a coherent educational plan based on assessment of abilities, aspirations, interests, and values” (NACADA, 2006, ¶ 10), “[make] connections between classroom and out-of-classroom learning” (CAS, 2005, p. 2), and demonstrate “inter and intrapersonal competence” (ACPA, ACUHO-I, ACUI, NACA, NACADA, NASPA, NIRSA. 2007, ¶ 1).

But what about students with disabilities? Do the same learning outcomes apply to these students? Absolutely! Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 declares that students with disabilities, who are otherwise qualified to participate in those educational programs and activities which receive federal financial assistance, must be provided access to these programs and activities (U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, 2005). These programs and activities include those associated with academic advising.

“A ‘qualified [student] with a disability’ is defined as one who meets the requisite academic and technical standards for admission or participation in the postsecondary institution’s programs and activities” (AHEAD, ACE, & HEATH Resource Center, ¶ 4). As such, students with disabilities must meet the same admissions requirements, demonstrate the same learning outcomes inside and outside of their courses, and maintain the same criteria for continuing their enrollment within a college, university and/or selective academic program, as those students without disabilities. Thus, it is only natural that intended academic advising-related learning outcomes remain intact, regardless of whether or not a student has a disability.

Institutions of higher education that receive federal funding must offer reasonable accommodations to otherwise qualified students, so that educational programs and activities are made accessible (AHEAD, ACE, & HEATH Resource Center, ¶ 6). These accommodations are designed to “level the playing field” while ensuring that the integrity of all academic programs and activities is maintained.

In order to receive academic accommodations, it is the student’s role to self-disclose to the disability support services unit, or other designated campus entity, that he or she has a disability; provide documentation of that disability; request appropriate accommodations; and communicate any and all approved accommodations to faculty and staff, as needed. Advisees with disabilities should be encouraged to self-disclose to their academic advisors that they have a documented disability and what accommodations they are eligible to receive. Encouraging this disclosure would: 1) demonstrate to the student that academic advising is indeed a teaching and learning process; 2) reiterate to the student that self-advocacy skills are needed inside and outside of the classroom environment; and 3) allow for more effective advising, to include addressing specific needs and recognizing the strengths and unique cultures of advisees with disabilities.

Building upon the notion that parallels should exist between the classroom learning environment and the academic advising learning environment, the modern academic advisor should collaborate with advisees with disabilities to identify and offer reasonable academic advising accommodations. These accommodations need not be as formalized as those within the classroom, yet they need to be offered, just the same. They may include furnishing printed materials in e-text format, securing the services of a sign language interpreter, and making arrangements for meeting with the advisee in a more accessible physical location.

Advisors should not be intimidated by the thought of offering reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities during the advising process, as these are oftentimes minimal modifications which come about quite naturally during the advising process. Academic advisors aware that their advisees receive classroom accommodations should take the time to transfer and apply those accommodations to the advising process. In other cases, when the advisee with a disability has not self-disclosed accommodations, the advisor should inquire of the advisee, just as they would any advisee, “What specific needs do you have? How can we work together to ensure that the advising process is effective for you?” By asking these questions, an inclusive relational foundation is laid for advisor-advisee rapport.

The inclusive academic advisor is one who is aware of students’ rights to access. They understand the need for keeping the learning outcomes associated with academic advising intact for students with disabilities. In addition, the inclusive advisor takes the time to ensure that appropriate accommodations are achieved in the academic advising process, thus maximizing the teaching and learning potential of the advisor and advisee.

Perhaps one day, educating students with disabilities – both inside and outside of the classroom – will not be seen as the role of “specialists” but as everyone’s role. Until then, academic advisors should be deliberate in their quest to become professionals equipped with the informational, conceptual, and relational skills necessary to be inclusive advisors.

Nikki Allen Dyer
Coordinator, Student Disability Support Services
Salisbury University
[email protected]


American College Personnel Association, Association of College and University Housing Officers International, Association of College Unions International, National Academic Advising Association, National Association for Campus Activities, National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association. (2007). Learning reconsidered, topics, developing learning outcomes. Retrieved July 6, 2008 from www.learningreconsidered.org/topics/theme.cfm?tid=4.

Association on Higher Education and Disability, American Council on Education, and HEATH Resource Center. (n.d.). Section 504: The law and its impact on postsecondary education [Brochure]. Huntersville, NC.

Council for the Advancement of Standards. (2005). Academic advising program: CAS standards and guidelines. Retrieved June 1, 2008 from www.nacada.ksu.edu/Research/Standards.htm.

National Academic Advising Association. (2006). NACADA concept of academic advising. Retrieved June 1, 2008, from www.nacada.ksu.edu/Clearinghouse/AdvisingIssues/Concept-Advising.htm.

United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. (2005). A guide to disability rights laws. Retrieved July 10, 2008, from www.ada.gov/cguide.htm#anchor65310.


AHEAD - www.ahead.org

American Council on Education - www.acenet.edu//AM/Template.cfm?Section=Home

The George Washington University HEATH Resource Center - www.heath.gwu.edu

University of Washington, DO-IT - www.washington.edu/doit/

US Dept. of Education - www.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/plan/index.html?src=pb

Cite this article using APA style as: Allen Dyer, N. (2008, September). Inclusive advising: Building competencies to better serve students with disabilities. Academic Advising Today, 31(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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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.