Grad school with disability

By Will Stafford

This is a quick guide to applying to graduate school as a student with disabilities or who needs accommodations for other reasons such as short term illness.

The Law

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects against discrimination on the basis of disability, including in education and employment. Let’s look at how the act protects you in applying and completing graduate school.

What does ADA provide?

Universities are required to provide equal access to education for students with disabilities by Title II of ADA for public schools and Title III for private schools. Further, by Title I you are protected from discrimination as an employee such as TAships and RAships.

What disabilities does ADA cover?

It is unclear. The website adata.org gives the following information:

A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.

If you have been eligible for accommodations at school or work, you are likely covered under the act.

What about the application process?

You are also protected here, but it is not clear what adjustments, if any, would be required under the law.

If you want guidance on ADA, including on accessing education, you can contact them: https://adata.org/technical-assistance

The GRE

Many graduate programs require you to complete the GRE. As a standardised test, you can apply for accommodations. This process is overly complicated and can take some effort. We try and provide some guidance here.  Information on the GRE website can be found here: https://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/register/disabilities and https://www.ets.org/s/gre/pdf/bulletin_supplement_test_takers_with_disabilities_health_needs.pdf (read the end of this document if you are a resident of Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, or Singapore)

One thing to note is that you can try and get the GRE waived instead, but your millage will vary.

What accommodations are available?

Extra time: 25%, 50%, 100%, extra breaks

Input devices: specialist keyboards, touchpad, trackball, braille keyboard, scribe

Output devices: screen magnification, adjustable colours, oral or sign language interpreter, reader, braille, large print

Permission to bring items into the test center (no permission need for: bandages, spinal cord stimulators, foot stool, lumbar support cushion, service animals, non-bluetooth hearing aids)

You can request other accommodations, but you will need to provide documentation justifying the need.

How to apply?

You must get accommodations approved before scheduling your test. THIS MEANS YOU MUST DO IT EARLY OR THERE MAY BE NO AVALABLE TEST BY THE TIME YOU NEED THEM! Accommodations may affect where you can take the test, particularly outside of the USA.

Everything is more complicated if you don’t do it online and you will need the following in addition:

GRE Test Authorization Voucher Request Form for Test Takers with Disabilities or Health-related Needs (if not submitting materials online) https://www.ets.org/s/gre/pdf/gre_test_authorization_voucher_request_form_test_takers_with_disabilities.pdf

Disability documentation

Everyone must collect documentation, but not everyone needs to send it to ETS. More information on documentation can be found here: https://www.ets.org/disabilities/documentation/

Health-related needs: letter of support from a doctor explaining the condition and reason for accommodations.

For a disability, the general guidelines for acceptable documentation are:

  1. Clearly state the diagnosis
  2. Describe the functional limitations
  3. be within the last 5 years for LD, ADHD, ASD, or ID; last 12 months for psychiatric disabilities or traumatic brain injury
  4. Contain relevant educational, developmental, or medical history
  5. Contain a list of testing instruments used for the purposes of diagnosis
  6. Describe requested accommodations and reasons for them.

You may, in addition, submit an Individualized Education Programme or 504 plan, but it cannot be the only documentation.

You do not need to submit disability documentation but instead the certificate of eligibility if:

  • You have a learning disability, ADHD, TBI, ASD, psychiatric disability or physical disability and are requesting only 50% extra time and extra breaks.
  • You are deaf or hard of hearing and are requesting only 50% extra time, extra breaks, sign language or oral interpreter.
  • You are blind or legally blind and are requesting only 100% extra time, extra breaks, screen magnification, adjusted colours, braille, large print, recorded audio, reader, scribe, and braille keyboard.

Exceptions that mean you must submit documents are:

  • First diagnosed within 12 months
  • Are changing accommodations ETS has granted in last two years
  • Have never used the accommodations before
  • Cannot get a certificate of eligibility completed

Certificate of Eligibility

You will still need your documentation for this certificate to be completed.

You do not fill this in. It is completed by Disability Services at your university or college, Human Resources at your place of employment, or Department of Vocation Rehabilitation in your state of residence.

Testing Accommodations Request Form

As far as I can tell, nowhere has a step by step rundown of the current application form, so I have made one here.

  1. First you need to click + Request New Accommodation
Screencap of the GRE accommodation application page
  • You will then be asked to agree to the terms and conditions
Screencap of the GRE accommodation application page
  • You will then be asked to fill in your personal information.
Screencap of the GRE accommodation application page
  • On the next page you will specify that you are applying for the GRE and fill in information about all disabilities and dates of first diagnosis and most recent evaluation.
Screencap of the GRE accommodation application page
  • The next page asks you to specify what accommodations you require.  Remember that there are restrictions on what can be requested if you are submitting only a certificate of eligibility.
Screencap of the GRE accommodation application page
  • On the next page you upload you documentation.
Screencap of the GRE accommodation application page
  • Finally review and submit.
Screencap of the GRE accommodation application page

Timeline

Get documentation: ?

Get certificate of eligibility from disability services: ~2 weeks

Document review: 6 weeks

Get extra documents: ~4 weeks

Extra document review: 4weeks (expect this to happen)

Book test

To tell or not to tell

One important question to ask is whether you want to mention your disability during the application process.

It is illegal for them to ask if you are disabled. So, if you want them to know, you must tell them.

Why might you do this?

  • There may be parts of your application package which you think may damage your chances but are explained by your disability. Examples might be: low GRE scores, gaps on CV, low grades or withdrawals on your transcript.
  • It might be an important part of your research interests (say in the philosophy of disability or perception).
  • You might want to screen out programmes that would discriminate on this basis.

Why might you not tell them?

  • If you tell them, they are legally not allowed to not accept you based on your disability. BUT PEOPLE DO NOT ALWAYS DO WHAT IS LEGAL OR RIGHT.
  • It is simply a personal matter and you do not want to tell those you don’t need to.

How might you do this?

  • You could include information in your personal statement.
  • You could contact the admissions coordinator.
  • You could ask your references to address it in their letters.

Accommodations

Let’s say you get good news and you have been admitted to programs, now you need to figure out if the department and the university will be a supportive environment.

First things first, you may not be able to go to visit weekends or you may need accommodations to do so. How the department and university react to this and accommodates you should be taken very seriously if they fail, but if they are very accommodating, be aware that this treatment may not extend past recruitment.

When you are there:

  • visit disability services
  • talk to a disabled student
  • go over healthcare coverage
  • if you feel comfortable, talk to the faculty in charge of graduate students

Questions to consider:

  • What accommodations will the university provide?
  • If ongoing medical treatment is required, what is it going to cost you?
  • Does the department have explicit policies in place for disabled students in terms of accommodations for qualifying exams or advancement?
  • What would happen if medical leave were needed (especially important if you are international)?
  • Has the department graduated disabled students before?
  • Are any faculty members known to be problematic?
  • Are there students/faculty members that are openly disabled?
  • What accommodations are provided for you as an employee vs a student?

Note: Being an international student adds problems with scholarship eligibility, and documents being considered valid.