Why Accommodation letters are important
Most disability service offices, DSO’s, require or recommend accommodation letters. Accommodation letters are formal, legal documents, which the student or the DSO sends to each course instructor. These letters outline the specific academic accommodations students need each semester. An office for students with disabilities should invite you to be involved in this process, but don’t wait for an invitation! The accommodation letter introduces you as a learner to an instructor who most likely has never had a student with a visual impairment before in her classes. Taking an active role in your accommodation requests will help you to advocate your needs clearly to people who are unfamiliar with blindness or visual impairment. But more importantly, the time you invest in setting up and maintaining a clear dialogue with your professor will help him or her to know you as the student who is eager to learn, rather than as a disability and additional things to remember. vIt could also help you to keep up with the requirements of your classes and afford you the opportunity to be successful.
As you work with your disabilities office or write your own accommodation requests, keep the following tips in mind. These practices will keep you at the center of your own learning. (In this article we will use bookmark links that can jump to each section):
- Ask the disabilities office to send you a draft of the accommodation letter before anyone else reads it.
- Personalize the letter.
- Make sure that the letter is class-specific.
- Meet your instructor face-to-face.
- Amend your accommodations if something comes up.
You have so much reading already that it may be tempting to let someone else send out your document without reading it over, but this is a mistake. The counselor at the DSO probably paid careful attention during your meeting; however, he or she represents many students with diverse strengths and needs. Reviewing the accommodation letter ensures that you can personalize the document before it becomes your introduction to your faculty.
For instance, many offices may not disclose your exact disability due to concerns about confidentiality. However, being open about your visual impairment in the letter, as well as in person, gives the instructor an honest first impression of you as a student. Ideally, the disabilities office will send you two versions of the document. The first version should be in a program, such as Microsoft Word, which is easy for you to use to edit the document. The second version will be a scanned PDF, which shows the office’s letterhead and signature; you can print out the official letter or forward an emailed copy to the instructor yourself.
While the accommodation letter is not the time or place to write the first working draft of your autobiography, you should add two or three sentences introducing yourself beyond your disability. If you are working with your disabilities office on accommodation letters, come to an agreement about whether the letter is from you as the student, or from the office on behalf of the student. Disabilities offices typically write from their point of view about “the student,” so if your letter is written in third person, write your introduction that way. If you write accommodation requests without the office’s assistance, or if the office makes the letter student-centered, you should write in the first person.
Consider the following two examples:
“I will be taking your education methods seminar this spring. I am delighted to work with you toward fulfilling the requirements for a minor in German.”
“Kristen will be taking your introductory biology class in the fall. She is an English major who is earning certification to teach English in secondary schools.”
In the first example, the introductory sentences reflected my interest in the field. The second example was a class which was fulfilling a requirement, but I still wanted to give a brief account of myself as a person and, perhaps, to connect through our shared interest in teaching. In both cases, the short introduction helps to personalize the student, not just the student’s disability, to the instructor.
Accommodations that are necessary for your chemistry lecture and lab may not be appropriate for your introductory French class and vice versa. While allowing one draft of the letter to go out to all of your instructors is certainly easier, taking the time to make class-specific adjustments will pay off in the long run. Your instructor will understand your visual impairment as it relates to the specific course content, and the letter can facilitate a helpful dialogue about lectures, labs and assignments throughout the semester.
Consider the following scenario, in which Hoby, a Learning Ally’s mentor, requests a lab assistant for an introductory chemistry class:
“I will need an assistant in all laboratory exercises to be my eyes when observing experiments and performing laboratory tasks. Whenever I have an assistant in the laboratory, I supervise the lab experience. The assistant will never complete the experiment for me; she helps me complete the experiment. I always meet with my assistants before lab to ensure that we have both read all of the necessary material and are both prepared to behave safely and efficiently together as a team in the laboratory. My assistant also records data for me, as I do not like bringing expensive electronics into the lab space. Therefore I meet with assistants for a sufficient amount of time after the lab to acquire the data in an accessible format and to format my final laboratory reports. Thank you for your consideration.”
Hoby’s accommodation request was written in the first person, ensuring that he remained at the center of his academic experience. He also clearly explained the benefit lab assistants would provide, as well as what they will and will not do during the lab periods. His explanation promised the instructors that he would remain at the center of his learning.
On the first day of classes, like every other student in the room, you’re overwhelmed with excitement, or maybe even apprehension. This is why Joe, another of Learning Ally’s mentors, suggests emailing the instructor before the semester begins. “the very first step which helped me out a lot was to email the professor before accommodation letters and before the quarter even starts to just introduce myself, to say what class I will be taking and to explain my disability. This helped the professor prepare himself or herself, and it opened the dialogue so it would be easier to talk to professors throughout the quarter. If they had any unique considerations for their classes, we could also figure out a way for the class to work so it could be written into the accommodation letter.”
For various reasons, it’s not always possible to catch up with your professor before the class starts. Thus it’s important to introduce yourself to the instructor before or after your first class or to make an appointment to come during the instructor’s office hours. There are several reasons why connecting early is a good idea. First of all, Meeting one-on-one with the faculty demonstrates that you have taken initiative and responsibility for your education. Secondly, it helps the professor to recognize you among many other names and faces. Finally, meeting this way gives your professor the opportunity to ask questions.
Remember to keep your face-to-face introduction as positive as possible. A professor will feel much more excited about working with a student who is interested in her course, blind or not, than she will feel about working with someone who merely says, “I’m blind, and I need a copy of your class notes.” Introducing yourself positively and alleviating any of her initial concerns goes a long way toward a successful class.
If you are taking online courses and don’t meet the professor in person, be sure to personalize an email introduction to the instructor, encouraging him or her to ask questions. You can also set up a phone call or videoconference using Skype or Google Hangouts for that “face-to-face” experience.
Many times a student knows what he or she needs for academic success. However, even the best-prepared student must face a new type of assignment no one has thought about or barriers to accessing materials midway through the semester. While working with the disabilities office can be helpful for solving these types of problems, don’t wait for the office to revise the legal document or to let the instructor know there is a problem. You are at the center of your studies, so you should talk to the professor yourself about the problem and your ideas about how best to handle the situation. Being prompt with your explanation of the problem and a solution or two that you’ve thought of will keep the dialogue between you and your professor going and will help you to complete your work on time.
Following the guidelines mentioned above will get your semester off to a great start and will help you to facilitate your own learning. More effort at the beginning of the semester will prevent mishaps in the future, because your instructors will understand you as a unique learner, one who is destined to succeed in higher education.