Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

October 9, 2003

Faculty members learn do’s, don’t’s regarding disabled students.

Faculty members learned some do’s and don’t’s regarding disabled students at a University Senate committee meeting last week.

“A faculty member should not go to a student and say, ‘I think you have a disability. Why don’t you go to Disability Resources and Services,” said Lynnett Van Slyke, director of Disability Resources and Services (DRS) at Pitt. “On the other hand, if a student comes to you asking for some kind of accommodation, you should refer them to us. You should not handle it yourself.”

Van Slyke told the Senate plant utilization and planning committee (PUP) Oct. 6 that among her office’s myriad services, she and her staff of five are trained to evaluate students on a case by case basis for “reasonable accommodation” requests. That ensures that the student is qualified under the law as having a disability and that the requested accommodation is appropriate for the disability, she said.

PUP and the Senate’s anti-discriminatory policies committee are looking at disability-related issues on campus at the request of Faculty Assembly. (See Sept. 11 University Times.)

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability and require institutions to make reasonable accommodations for those otherwise qualified individuals with a disability who request accommodations.

According to Van Slyke, an individual is defined as disabled by law if he or she “has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of that person’s major life activities, such as walking, talking, seeing, learning, emotional control, hearing, swallowing,” Van Slyke said.
(She added that pregnancy is not considered a disability under the law because it is not seen as an impairment to major life activities.)

A reasonable academic accommodation is a modification or adjustment that allows an individual to gain equal access and have equal opportunity to participate in the University’s courses, services, activities and facilities.

But to secure accommodations, the onus is on the student, not the faculty member, Van Slyke pointed out. “Under ADA law, individuals with a disability must disclose to the University that they have a disability, which is kept confidential. They also must provide documentation of their disability, which our staff reviews, and they must be the ones who request services,” she said. “But the University has no obligation to go out and seek such individuals.”

Faculty also should be aware that students who are not legally disabled could try to take advantage of them, Van Slyke said.

What Pitt is required to do legally is provide “equal access to all aspects of the college experience, including dormitories, movies, spring break events, everything that relates to student activities,” Van Slyke said. “But the University is not required to bend its rules regarding such things as class attendance, assignments and test-taking. Part of our job is to protect the integrity of the [Pitt] degree, while offering equal access,” she said.

Determining reasonable accommodations is a collaborative process including the student and DRS staff. The course instructor is consulted only on a need-to-know basis, and must keep information regarding a disability confidential, Van Slyke said. A Notification of Disability memo will be issued to the student once reasonable accommodations are determined by DRS. Accommodations can include classroom location changes and  alternative testing formats. DRS has access to a number of adaptive technologies, including large-print or Braille textbooks, textbooks on tape, interpreters and other support services.

DRS also strongly recommends that all faculty include in their course syllabi this Faculty Assembly-approved statement: “If you have a disability for which you are or may be requesting an accommodation, you are encouraged to contact both your instructor and Disability Resources and Services, 216 William Pitt Union, 412/648-7890 or 412/383-7355 (TTY) as early as possible in the term.”

“The student is not obligated to tell the instructor the nature of the disability, however,” Van Slyke said.

Frequently, a disabled student’s parents will contact a professor directly about their son or daughter. Van Slyke said faculty should direct those parents to Disability Resources and Services.

Questions about facilities, however, should be directed to Pitt Affirmative Action director William Savage. “He investigates complaints when an individual thinks access could be better,” Van Slyke said. “If he views that the situation does not comply with the law then he coordinates with Facilities Management and our office to see what can be done.”

PUP chair Ronald Hoelzeman said the committee will invite a Facilities Management representative to discuss the office’s responsibilities and procedures related to disability concerns.

In her report to PUP, Van Slyke said that her office had 251 new clients this past year, 248 of whom were students, and three faculty or staff. She pointed out that the largest group of  students who are registered with DRS (49 percent) are learning disabled, reflecting a national trend.

“Nationally, about 10 percent of [college] students are disabled, although the rise since 1990 [when ADA took effect] is leveling off. This is why our learning disability screening service and our test proctoring services are especially important,” she said. DRS has access to adaptive technology for both the physically and learning disabled that include alternative format documents and interpreters.

PUP’s Hoelzeman said that DRS should make every effort to get the word out about their services. “I’m certain that a lot of faculty don’t know about your office,” Hoelzeman said.

Van Slyke said that notices of the office’s services are included in recruiting and admissions materials as well as residence hall information packets. She added that DRS staff will make presentations for campus groups that request one.

The DRS web site,, contains information on the range of accommodations for students with disabilities, the academic accommodations review committee, policy and procedures on course substitution, student and University rights and responsibilities, among other information, such as some of the proper terms to use when referring to a disabled person.

—Peter Hart


Filed under: Feature,Volume 36 Issue 4

Leave a Reply