Advocating for Accommodations

Bringing Dyslexia Advocacy to D.C.

from Left to Right: Claude Wasserstein, Rep. George Miller, Sally Shaywitz, Joe Courtney, Bennett Shaywitz, Sam Gejdenson

YCDC’S co-directors Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz travel to educate lawmakers on the benefits that dyslexics bring to school, the workplace, and the world—and the accommodations they need to continue their educational and vocational journeys.

The ADA Amendment Act (ADAA) of 2008 was passed by both the U.S. House and Senate, with the Senate passing it unanimously on September 11, 2008. Rep. Pete Stark (CA-D), passionately dedicated friend of YCDC and of those who are dyslexic, spoke on the House floor on September 17, 2008. To read the Colloquy, click here.

In July 2010 the Department of Justice issued regulations to the ADAA. What follows is a portion of the regulations particularly important for those with dyslexia:

Section 36.309 Examinations and Courses

Section 36.309(a) sets forth the general rule that any private entity that offers examinations or courses relating to applications, licensing, certification, or credentialing for secondary or postsecondary education, professional, or trade purposes shall offer such examinations or courses in a place and manner accessible to persons with disabilities or offer alternative accessible arrangements for such individuals. In the NPRM preamble and proposed regulatory amendment and in this final rule, the Department relied on its history of enforcement efforts, research, and body of knowledge of testing and modifications, accommodations, and aids in detailing steps testing entities should take to ensure that persons with disabilities receive appropriate modifications, accommodations, or auxiliary aids in examination and course settings as required by the ADA. The Department received comments from disability rights groups, organizations that administer tests, State governments, professional associations, and individuals on the language appearing in the NPRM preamble and amended regulation and has carefully considered these comments.

The Department initially set out the parameters of appropriate documentation requests relating to examinations and courses covered by this section in the 1991 preamble at 28 CFR part 36, stating that “requests for documentation must be reasonable and must be limited to the need for the modification or aid requested.” See 28 CFR part 36, app. B at 735 (2009). Since that time, the Department, through its enforcement efforts pursuant to section 309, has addressed concerns that requests by testing entities for documentation regarding the existence of an individual’s disability and need for a modification or auxiliary aid or service were often inappropriate and burdensome. The Department proposed language stating that while it may be appropriate for a testing entity to request that an applicant provide documentation supporting the existence of a disability and the need for a modification, accommodation, or auxiliary aid or service, the request by the testing entity for such documentation must be reasonable and limited. The NPRM proposed that testing entities should narrowly tailor requests for documentation, limiting those requests to materials that will allow the testing entities to ascertain the nature of the disability and the individual’s need for the requested modification, accommodation, or auxiliary aid or service. This proposal codified the 1991 rule’s preamble language regarding testing entities’ requests for information supporting applicants’ requests for testing modifications or accommodations.

Overall, most commenters supported this addition to the regulation. These commenters generally agreed that documentation sought by testing entities to support requests for modifications and testing accommodations should be reasonable and tailored. Commenters noted, for example, that the proposal to require reasonable and tailored documentation requests “is not objectionable. Indeed, it largely tracks DOJ’s long-standing informal guidance that ‘requests for documentation must be reasonable and limited to the need for the modification or aid requested.'”

Commenters including disability rights groups, State governments, professional associations, and individuals made it clear that, in addition to the proposed regulatory change, other significant problems remain for individuals with disabilities who seek necessary modifications to examinations and courses. These problems include detailed questions about the nature of documentation materials submitted by candidates, testing entities’ questioning of documentation provided by qualified professionals with expertise in the particular disability at issue, and lack of timeliness in determining whether to provide requested accommodations or modifications. Several commenters expressed enthusiasm for the preamble language addressing some of these issues, and some of these commenters recommended the incorporation of portions of this preamble language into the regulatory text. Some testing entities expressed concerns and uncertainty about the language in the preamble and sought clarifications about its meaning. These commenters focused most of their attention on the following language from the NPRM preamble:

Generally, a testing entity should accept without further inquiry documentation provided by a qualified professional who has made an individualized assessment of the applicant. Appropriate documentation may include a letter from a qualified professional or evidence of a prior diagnosis, or accommodation, or classification, such as eligibility for a special education program. When an applicant’s documentation is recent and demonstrates a consistent history of a diagnosis, there is no need for further inquiry in the nature of the disability. A testing entity should consider an applicant’s past use of a particular auxiliary aid or service.

73 FR 34508, 34539 (June 17, 2008).

Professional organizations, State governments, individuals, and disability rights groups fully supported the Department’s preamble language and recommended further modification of the regulations to encompass the issues raised in the preamble. A disability rights group recommended that the Department incorporate the preamble language into the regulations to ensure that “documentation demands are strictly limited in scope and met per se when documentation of previously provided accommodations or aids is provided.” One professional education organization noted that many testing corporations disregard the documented diagnoses of qualified professionals, and instead substitute their own, often unqualified diagnoses of individuals with disabilities. Commenters confirmed that testing entities sometimes ask for unreasonable information that is either impossible, or extremely onerous, to provide. A disability rights organization supported the Department’s proposals and noted that private testing companies impose burdensome documentation requirements upon applicants with disabilities seeking accommodations and that complying with the documentation requests is frequently so difficult, and negotiations over the requests so prolonged, that test applicants ultimately forgo taking the test. Another disability rights group urged the Department to “expand the final regulatory language to ensure that regulations accurately provide guidance and support the comments made about reducing the burden of documenting the diagnosis and existence of a disability.”

Testing entities, although generally supportive of the proposed regulatory amendment, expressed concern regarding the Department’s proposed preamble language. The testing entities provided the Department with lengthy comments in which they suggested that the Department’s rationale delineated in the preamble potentially could limit them from gathering meaningful and necessary documentation to determine whether, in any given circumstance, a disability is presented, whether modifications are warranted, and which modifications would be most appropriate. Some testing entities raised concerns about individuals skewing testing results by falsely claiming or feigning disabilities as an improper means of seeking advantage on an examination. Several testing entities raised concerns about and sought clarification regarding the Department’s use of certain terms and concepts in the preamble, including “without further inquiry,” “appropriate documentation,” “qualified professional,” “individualized assessment,” and “consider.” These entities discussed the preamble language at length, noting that testing entities need to be able to question some aspects of testing applicants’ documentation or to request further documentation from some candidates when the initial documentation is unclear or incomplete. One testing entity expressed concern that the Department’s preamble language would require the acceptance of a brief note on a doctor’s prescription pad as adequate documentation of a disability and the need for an accommodation. One medical examination organization stated that the Department’s preamble language would result in persons without disabilities receiving accommodations and passing examinations as part of a broad expansion of unwarranted accommodations, potentially endangering the health and welfare of the general public. Another medical board “strenuously objected” to the “without further inquiry” language. Several of the testing entities expressed concern that the Department’s preamble language might require testing companies to accept documentation from persons with temporary or questionable disabilities, making test scores less reliable, harming persons with legitimate entitlements, and resulting in additional expense for testing companies to accommodate more test takers.

It remains the Department’s view that, when testing entities receive documentation provided by a qualified professional who has made an individualized assessment of an applicant that supports the need for the modification, accommodation, or aid requested, they shall generally accept such documentation and provide the accommodation.

Several commenters sought clarifications on what types of documentation are acceptable to demonstrate the existence of a disability and the need for a requested modification, accommodation, or aid. The Department believes that appropriate documentation may vary depending on the nature of the disability and the specific modification or aid requested, and accordingly, testing entities should consider a variety of types of information submitted. Examples of types of information to consider include recommendations of qualified professionals familiar with the individual, results of psycho-educational or other professional evaluations, an applicant’s history of diagnosis, participation in a special education program, observations by educators, or the applicant’s past use of testing accommodations. If an applicant has been granted accommodations post-high school by a standardized testing agency, there is no need for reassessment for a subsequent examination.

Some commenters expressed concern regarding the use of the term “letter” in the proposed preamble sentence regarding appropriate documentation. The NPRM preamble language stated that “[a]ppropriate documentation may include a letter from a qualified professional or evidence of a prior diagnosis, accommodation, or classification, such as eligibility for a special education program.” 73 FR 34508, 34539 (June 17, 2008). Some testing entities posited that the preamble language would require them to accept a brief letter from a doctor or even a doctor’s note on a prescription pad indicating “I’ve been treating (student) for ADHD and he/she is entitled to extend time on the ACT.” The Department’s reference in the NPRM preamble to letters from physicians or other professionals was provided in order to offer examples of some types of acceptable documentation that may be considered by testing entities in evaluating the existence of an applicant’s disability and the need for a certain modification, accommodation, or aid. No one piece of evidence may be dispositive in make a testing accommodation determination. The significance of a letter or other communication from a doctor or other qualified professional would depend on the professional’s relationship with the candidate and the specific content of the communication, as well as how the letter fits in with the totality of the other factors used to determine testing accommodations under this rule. Similarly, an applicant’s failure to provide results from a specific test or evaluation instrument should not of itself preclude approval of requests for modifications, accommodations, or aids if the documentation provided by the applicant, in its entirety, is sufficient to demonstrate that the individual has a disability and requires a requested modification, accommodation, or aid on the relevant examination. This issue is discussed in more detail below.

One disability rights organization noted that requiring a 25-year-old who was diagnosed in junior high school with a learning disability and accommodated ever since “to produce elementary school report cards to demonstrate symptomology before the age of seven is unduly burdensome.” The same organization commented that requiring an individual with a long and early history of disability to be assessed within three years of taking the test in question is similarly burdensome, stating that “[t]here is no scientific evidence that learning disabilities abate with time, nor that Attention Deficits abate with time * * * .” This organization noted that there is no justification for repeatedly subjecting people to expensive testing regimens simply to satisfy a disbelieving industry. This is particularly true for adults with, for example, learning disabilities such as dyslexia, a persistent condition without the need for retesting once the diagnosis has been established and accepted by a standardized testing agency.

Some commenters from testing entities sought clarification regarding who may be considered a “qualified professional.” Qualified professionals are licensed or otherwise properly credentialed and possess expertise in the disability for which modifications or accommodations are sought. For example, a podiatrist would not be considered to be a qualified professional to diagnose a learning disability or support a request for testing accommodations on that basis. Types of professionals who might possess the appropriate credentials and expertise are doctors (including psychiatrists), psychologists, nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, vocational rehabilitation specialists, school counselors, and licensed mental health professionals. Additionally, while testing applicants should present documentation from qualified professionals with expertise in the pertinent field, it also is critical that testing entities that review documentation submitted by prospective examinees in support of requests for testing modifications or accommodations ensure that their own reviews are conducted by qualified professionals with similarly relevant expertise.

Commenters also sought clarification of the term individualized assessment. The Department’s intention in using this term is to ensure that documentation provided on behalf of a testing candidate is not only provided by a qualified professional, but also reflects that the qualified professional has individually and personally evaluated the candidate as opposed to simply considering scores from a review of documents. This is particularly important in the learning disabilities context, where proper diagnosis requires face-to-face evaluation. Reports from experts who have personal familiarity with the candidate should take precedence over those from, for example, reviewers for testing agencies, who have never personally met the candidate or conducted the requisite assessments for diagnosis and treatment.

Some testing entities objected to the NPRM preamble’s use of the phrase “without further inquiry.” The Department’s intention here is to address the extent to which testing entities should accept documentation provided by an applicant when the testing entity is determining the need for modifications, accommodations, or auxiliary aids or services. The Department’s view is that applicants who submit appropriate documentation, e.g., documentation that is based on the careful individual consideration of the candidate by a professional with expertise relating to the disability in question, should not be subjected to unreasonably burdensome requests for additional documentation. While some testing commenters objected to this standard, it reflects the Department’s longstanding position.When an applicant’s documentation demonstrates a consistent history of a diagnosis of a disability, and is prepared by a qualified professional who has made an individualized evaluation of the applicant, there is little need for further inquiry into the nature of the disability, and generally testing entities should grant the requested modification, accommodation, or aid.

After a careful review of the comments, the Department has decided to maintain the proposed regulatory language on the scope of appropriate documentation in §36.309(b)(1)(iv).The Department has also added new regulatory language at §36.309(b)(1)(v) that provides that testing entities shall give considerable weight to documentation of past modifications, accommodations, or auxiliary aids or services received in similar testing situations as well as such modifications, accommodations, or related aids and services provided in response to an Individualized Education Program (IEP) provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or a plan providing services pursuant to section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended (often referred to as a Section 504 Plan). These additions to the regulation are necessary because the Department’s position on the bounds of appropriate documentation contained in Appendix B, 28 CFR part 36, app. B (2009), has not been implemented consistently and fully by organizations that administer tests.

The new regulatory language clarifies that an applicant’s past use of a particular modification, accommodation, or auxiliary aid or service in a similar testing setting or pursuant to an IEP or Section 504 Plan provides critical information in determining those examination modifications that would be applicable in a given circumstance. The addition of this language and the appropriate weight to be accorded it is seen as important by the Department because the types of accommodations provided in both these circumstances are typically granted in the context of individual consideration of a student’s needs by a team of qualified and experienced professionals. Even though these accommodations decisions form a common sense and logical basis for testing entities to rely upon, they are often discounted and ignored by testing entities.

For example, considerable weight is warranted when a student with a Section 504 Plan in place since middle school that includes the accommodations of extra time and a quiet room for testing is seeking these same accommodations from a testing entity covered by section 309 of the Act. In this example, a testing entity receiving such documentation should clearly grant the request for accommodations. A history of test accommodations in secondary schools or in post-secondary institutions, particularly when determined through the rigors of a process required and detailed by Federal law, is as useful and instructive for determining whether a specific accommodation is required as accommodations provided in standardized testing situations.

It is important to note, however, that the inclusion of this weight does not suggest that individuals without IEPs or Section 504 Plans are not also entitled to receive testing accommodations. Indeed, it is recommended that testing entities must consider the entirety of an applicant’s history to determine whether that history, even without the context of an IEP or Section 504 Plan, indicates a need for accommodations. In addition, many students with learning disabilities have made use of informal, but effective accommodations. For example, such students often receive undocumented accommodations such as time to complete tests after school or at lunchtime, or being graded on content and not form or spelling of written work. Finally, testing entities shall also consider that because private schools are not subject to the IDEA, students at private schools may have a history of receiving accommodations in similar settings that are not pursuant to an IEP or Section 504 Plan.

Some testing entities sought clarification that they should only be required to consider particular use of past modifications, accommodations, auxiliary aids or services received by testing candidates for prior testing and examination settings. These commenters noted that it would be unhelpful to consider the classroom accommodations for a testing candidate, as those accommodations would not typically apply in a standardized test setting. The Department’s history of enforcement in this area has demonstrated that a recent history of past accommodations is critical to an understanding of the applicant’s disability and the appropriateness of testing accommodations.

The Department also incorporates the NPRM preamble’s “timely manner” concept into the new regulatory language at §36.309(b)(1)(vi). Under this provision, testing entities are required to respond in a timely manner to requests for testing accommodations in order to ensure equal opportunity for persons with disabilities. Testing entities are to ensure that their established process for securing testing accommodations provides applicants with a reasonable opportunity to supplement the testing entities’ requests for additional information, if necessary, and still be able to take the test in the same testing cycle. A disability rights organization commented that testing entities should not subject applicants to unreasonable and intrusive requests for information in a process that should provide persons with disabilities effective modifications in a timely manner, fulfilling the core objective of title III to provide equal access. Echoing this perspective, several disability rights organizations and a State government commenter urged that testing entities should not make unreasonably burdensome demands for documentation, particularly where those demands create impediments to receiving accommodations in a timely manner.

Access to examinations should be offered to persons with disabilities in as timely a manner as it is offered to persons without disabilities. Failure by a testing entity to act in a timely manner, coupled with seeking unnecessary documentation, could result in such an extended delay that it constitutes a denial of equal opportunity or equal treatment in an examination setting for persons with disabilities.

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