Even though I have made myself a well-known disability advocate and assistive technology evangelist at my college, I still have to sit down with my professors at the beginning of the semester and talk to them about my faculty contact sheet and disability accommodations. While most of my professors follow my lead about how they can best support me in the classroom, it’s still important to know how to explain disability accommodations to professors to ensure that they will be able to follow these accommodations and ensure that students will have equal access to classroom materials. Here are my tips on how to explain disability accommodations to professors, and to educate them about how assistive technology is used in the classroom.
First, request a faculty contact sheet or accommodations list
A faculty contact sheet or accommodations list is an official document from Disability Services that states the accommodations or modifications that a student has been approved for, based on their Disability Services file. Disability Services provides a personalized copy of the faculty contact sheet for each professor and lists what accommodations a student can use in their class. The student’s disability or diagnosis is not listed on the contact sheet, so students do not have to disclose their exact disability if they don’t feel comfortable doing so- since I openly talk about my disability and neurological condition on the internet, I typically tell my professors that I have low vision and Chiari Malformation, though one of my friends chooses to keep their disability diagnosis secret as they fear their professor will treat them differently.
How to explain disability accommodations to professors over email
Before the start of the semester or after registering for classes, I send my professors a brief introductory email telling them that I have a file with Disability Services and give a quick summary of what I will need from them. I also ask them to confirm the ISBN for the textbook so that I can make sure I order the correct copy or so I can request an accessible copy. Here’s an email I sent to one of my professors last year:
My name is Veronica Lewis, and I am registered for section 001 of your CDS 303 class. I have a file with Disability Services for low vision and a neurological condition and have attached my faculty contact sheet for review. The major accommodations that I will need for your class include access to PowerPoint presentations and digital copies of class materials, a seat in the front row of the class, and verbal warnings for content that will include strobe, flickering, or flashing lights.
Before the semester begins, can you confirm to me what the ISBN is for the textbook that we’ll be using in the class, as well as the software requirements for the class? I want to make sure I have everything I need before the first day of class and that I don’t have to wait for an accessible textbook.
Talk about disability accommodations on the first day of class
Sometimes the professor isn’t announced before the first day of class or I forget to email them after switching around classes in my schedule. In these cases, it’s critical to talk to professors about disability accommodations on the first day of class to ensure that they will be able to follow accommodations, as well as make sure that the tools that are being used in the class are accessible. All my professors regardless of department mention on the first day of class that if a student has a file with Disability Services, they should talk to them privately about their accommodations so that the professor can make sure they know what the student will need for class. I’ll typically say something like this:
“Hello! I sent my faculty contact sheet a while ago, but just as a reminder I will need to have copies of PowerPoints or items posted on the class website, and warnings about strobe, flickering, or flashing lights or animations. My testing accommodations are listed on the faculty contact sheet too, but I typically take tests in the testing center.”
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What if I don’t have accommodations on the first day of class?
One of my biggest pieces of advice for students is to be proactive, not reactive, and get accommodations prior to the first day of classes. While I did this at my university, this didn’t happen for my community college math classes due to unforeseen circumstances that were outside of anyone’s control, though I did start the intake process before the first day of classes. I sent my professor an email before the first day of class introducing myself and explaining that I was waiting for final accommodations to be approved, and asked if they would be able to describe what they were writing on the screen so that I would be able to follow along in class- all assignments were already available in a digital format for everyone, and there were no restrictions on calculators. The professor said this wasn’t a problem, and I was able to get through the first few classes without any issues, though I still worked on getting my accommodations approved as quickly as possible.
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If needed, demonstrate how assistive technology works
Since I’ve taken graduate-level classes in assistive technology and also run my own website on assistive technology for low vision, my professors trust that I am using assistive technology for my classes in a practical and positive way, and I haven’t had to explain how I use assistive technology for most of my classes. However, I still get questions sometimes from my professors about whether a device I’m using can store images, or if there are any computer settings that can be enabled in the computer lab so that I can focus more easily. In these cases, I typically give a brief demonstration of how I use assistive technology that specifically relates to their class. Some examples include:
- Demonstrating how a video magnifier can enlarge printed materials and how I can change the colors of the display
- Having them listen to a screen reader that reads assignments and other online information aloud
- Showing how my blindness cane helps me avoid obstacles, or explaining why I don’t need to have my blindness cane to walk a short distance in the classroom
- Using a screen magnifier to enlarge details in an image, which was helpful for a graphic design class
- Turning my phone or tablet screen to show that my device is in large print if they ask how I can use my electronic devices
I recognize that not all students want to be accessibility advocates and would prefer to focus on learning new things instead of how they learn new things. For this reason, I have also shared links from my website with professors if they want to learn more about a given piece of technology, and other students have shared links from my website with professors as well.
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Share campus resources that are available to help
Another thing that can help with learning how to explain disability accommodations to professors is sharing campus resources or other tools that can help support professors with creating accessible materials or getting help with including students in activities. While each college has a slightly different name for these resources, some examples of things I share with professors include:
- Assistive technology events and specialists that they can talk to
- Accessible document labs so that accessible documents can be converted
- Captioning and audio description services
- Disability Services testing center
- Other professors within the department I have worked with in the past
- Online resources for supporting professors teaching low vision students, like Veronica With Four Eyes
- What To Know About College Assistive Technology Specialists
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- What To Bring To The Disability Services Testing Center
What if the professor says they can’t follow my accommodations?
It is illegal for professors to discriminate against students based on disability, but if a professor truly believes they cannot include me in the classroom, I would rather know this before the add/drop deadline so I can transfer into a class where the professor will be able to accommodate me. Another thing that helps is asking them what about my accommodations is overwhelming for them- in one case, my graphic design professor was worried that I would not be able to follow along with class materials because I use a blindness cane, and I ended up explaining to them that I still had usable vision and my vision would not have a significant impact on my ability to complete assignments.
If the professor demonstrates during the semester that they are unable to follow accommodations and are showing academic ableism, they can be reported to the college ethics office or Disability Services.
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Other tips for how to explain disability accommodations to professors
- Know what disability accommodations you receive and practice sharing your accommodations so that you can give correct information
- Whenever possible, develop self-advocacy skills so that these types of conversations seem less intimidating
- Talk to the head of your department or your advisor about your disability accommodations and see if they have professor recommendations