Most colleges and universities are required to offer accommodations to students with a disability (a physical or mental health problem that limits your major life activities) under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 These laws, which protect students from discrimination on the basis of disability, require schools to provide accommodations to help “level the playing field” for students with disabilities. Accommodations include extended time for tests, audio recordings of lectures and books, preferential seating and many others.
Some accommodations, such as extra time on tests, may work well for students with learning disabilities or AD/HD. Keep in mind, however, that typical accommodations for other students may not be helpful for students with OCD. Extra time on an exam, for example, may allow more time for ritualizing and actually intensify the OCD. So it’s important that accommodations fit your needs.
Before seeking formal accommodations, which are typically provided through the disabilities office or Dean of Students, it might be beneficial to check into other services your school offers. If your college or university has a learning skills center, for example, you may benefit from using their resources to acquire study skills, learn how to prepare for and take exams and figure out ways to decrease test anxiety. Programs such as these are open to all students, and, therefore, do not represent official accommodations.
Many individuals believe that people with OCD should not seek special accommodations at school or in the workplace, suggesting that it will take longer to get relief from OCD if symptoms are accommodated. And ultimately, your primary goal is to learn to manage your OCD so you can function productively in the real world, with all its triggers and stresses. But if your grades are suffering because of your OCD, it can be extremely helpful to take advantage of some temporary accommodations that allow you to function in school while you get treatment.
To obtain disability accommodations at the college level, you will be required to provide documentation. Some schools require more documentation than others. In general, however, you must be prepared to get a written statement from a licensed/qualified professional documenting your disability and how it affects your capacity to participate in and benefit from the academic program. The law requires that schools keep all information about a student’s disability confidential, and it does not become part of your permanent record at the school.
An individualized education program (IEP) or Section 504 plan, if you had one in high school, may help identify services that have been effective for you. This generally is not sufficient documentation of a disability, however, because of the differences between postsecondary education and high school education. What you need to meet the new demands of postsecondary education may be different from what worked for you in high school. Also, the nature of a disability may change. With OCD, for example, it’s common for symptoms to change over time. Therefore, the types of accommodations that worked in the past may not be effective in college.
Although Section 504 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act actually protect elementary, secondary, and postsecondary students from discrimination, several of the laws’ requirements that apply through high school are different from those that apply beyond high school. For example, Section 504 requires school districts at the elementary and secondary level to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to each child with a disability in the district’s jurisdiction.
At the postsecondary level, however, schools are not required to provide FAPE; they are required to provide appropriate academic adjustments, as necessary, to ensure that they do not discriminate on the basis of disability. In fact, one of the reasons accommodation requests at the college level are denied is that they go beyond the scope of “leveling the playing field” – or preventing discrimination – for students with disabilities. Requests for accommodations may also be rejected if they: (1) lower or substantially modify essential requirements, (2) fundamentally alter the nature of a service, program, or activity, or (3) would result in an undue financial or administrative burden to the school.