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Question #42:
  • I attend a state college. I am learning disabled. My main disability is recall. I have been failing my exams because the professors will not allow me take open-book exams, because they believe it would be cheating. I have asked the accommodations department to assist me, but they cannot make the professors change the school policy, which is not have open-book exams unless the entire class is doing so. Shouldn't open-book exams be included in my accommodations, if my disability requires it? What should I do? (courtesy Jasmine C. Delaney, Chicago, IL)
Answer #42:
  • If you have a formally & professionally diagnosed learning disability, then your college is required to offer you accommodations, by Federal Law. However, unless open-book exams were a specific designation on your high school IEP, you may have to have new psychoeducational testing and submit an educational evaluation which states that this is the only valid way for you to retrieve learned information.
    Go to the Dean of Students and describe your situation. If you do not get any help from the Dean, call the local chapter of the Learning Disabilities Association and ask them to help you find someone who can help interpret the law so that you can receive the accommodations to which you are entitled.

    Reader's Response: Your response is correct. The student needs to present appropriate documentation of her disability. The college is required to offer accommodations - however, there are some guidelines in which colleges operate that differ significantly from high schools.
    In high school, the institution is required to provide all accommodations that would make education accessible - including those that might significantly alter the course content, as long as the student has an opportunity to learn.
    In college, the requirement is to offer an opportunity to learn, as long as it does not significantly alter the course content or what the exam is intended to measure.
    This student's request for accommodation may approach that "significantly alter" barrier. What is not clear is how much the college has attempted to work with the instructors involved to make that determination. Further, it is not clear if some middle ground has or has not been reached.
    For example, some students who request open book exams when part of the test is measuring memory, have done well with alternative accommodations - such as note cards that remind a student of the process while still requiring the student to remember how to apply the process. If the student and the college are at a standstill, the college would need to not only demonstrate that the recall of facts or other memorized items is not only what a test is designed to measure, but that this skill is also necessary for the field of study.
    The Courts and Office of Civil Rights have usually left it up to the college and professors to make these decisions - but a formal decision must be made.
    I think what is missing here is that the college has never said to the student that her request is unreasonable. Without that formal decision, she is left in limbo. It is unfair to her not to have that formal decision because without it she cannot pursue other actions (changing careers/majors or seeking legal recourse). In similar situations, the Office of Civil Rights has found institutions at fault for leaving students in limbo like this.
    I think the best advice for this student is to get it in writing as to why this accommodation is being refused and if any other accommodations have been offered to attempt help the student. If other accommodations have been offered, but she has not tried them, she needs to make the attempt with the offered accommodations. If that fails, then she is in a position to decide what is next. If she has used all the processes available to her at the college - including the grievance process - she is then in a position to pursue legal recourse or make career or major changes.
    I also need to note that she does not have to pursue all processes at the college before seeking legal action, but it will make her case stronger if she has and the college has not responded appropriately.
    I hope this helps the student. It sounds like she is in a difficult situation.
    (courtesy Carol Achziger, Computer Access Center Coordinator, Arapahoe Community College, Littleton, CO)
    EDUFAX provides services for the Learning Disabled Student.
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