College Disability Services: A Tricky Issue

Should someone born with only two fingers on one of their hands be admitted into a medical school?

   What if someone with a severe stutter wants to work as a broadcast journalist? Should a college allow that person to enroll in its school of mass communication?

These are some of the questions that disability and special needs officials on college campuses routinely face.

I hadn’t thought much about these questions until last week when I was a keynote speaker at the AHEAD in Virginia Conference held at Sweet Briar College in Amherst. AHEAD is an acronym for Association on Higher Education and Disability.  Nancy Beach, one of its members, invited me to speak about my book and experiences with my son, Mike, whose mental disorder first surfaced while he was attending college.

Most AHEAD members are responsible for making certain their colleges comply with federal and state disability, discrimination, and privacy laws. That can be tricky business.

Cheryl Chesney-Walker, executive director of Special Services for Students, at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, led one of  the best workshops at the conference. She explained that it would be unethical for a college to charge tuition to a blind student who wanted to become an airline pilot. The Federal Aviation Administration has ironclad regulations about eyesight. That was an extreme example. She then moved to less obvious situations.  A deaf woman wanted to become a nurse. How realistic was that goal? Wouldn’t she need someone to sign for her if she was hired to work inside a hospital?

Because making these decisions  can be difficult, many colleges are drafting  “technical standards” that students must pass if they want to earn a degree.

These are lists of  “skills, experiences, personal/professional attributes, physical, medical safety and other requirements for admission into a professional program.” A student must meet them as well as traditional academic standards in order to earn a diploma.

In more simple English, technical standards are what a student must do to successfully perform a professional task. Who decides what those standards are? The standards can’t simply be a list drawn up by a group of professors. The criteria must be widely acknowledged in a field and it must not be used to screen out or limit persons with disabilities. In other words, the standards have to be applicable to all candidates. Technical standards must focus on “what” must be accomplished and not on the “how,” Chesney-Walker explained.

At VCU, students who want to graduate with a degree in mass communication must meet five techincal standards. The school has broken these down into catagories: motor skills, sensory/observation, communciation, cognitive, and behavioral requirements.  Let’s look at the technical standard for motor skills.

General standard: Students should have sufficient motor function to operate the equipment needed to meet curriculum requirements in all communications fields.

Specific standard: (motor skills) Students should have sufficient motor function to operate personal computers; use word processing software; access the Internet and other online information; use spreadsheets, databases and other analytic software; operate audio editing and field gathering equipment; and operate video editing and field gathering equipment. In addition, students must have the speed and dexterity to use this equipment and software in such a manner as to be able to meet strict deadlines, similar to those imposed in the communications profession.

On paper, those technical standards seem reasonable. But people are unique and we live in a world where newly developing technologies can improve the lives of persons with disabilities and open doors.

In addition to explaining how VCU and other schools are drafting technical standards, Chesney-Walker spoke eloquently about the need for colleges to accomodate disabled students during emergencies. When an elevator stopped working recently in a Virginia college, a student in a wheelchair was trapped. It took emergency police and fire department officers five hours to figure out a way to get the student and his specialized wheelchair out of the building. Had there been an emergency, the student would not have been able to wait that long. 

In another example, an AHEAD member in a wheelchair recounted how she was told to move into a fire exit stairwell if there were an emergency in her office building. During fires, elevators are not supposed to be used. The AHEAD member was assured that the stairwell was fireproof and she would be safe there. 

But she was not convinced.

The stairwell was narrow and her wheelchair would have made it difficult for other people to slip by her.  What would happen if people coming down from higher floors panicked when they saw her blocking their escape route?

Another hot  topic at the AHEAD conference was emergency crisis intervention. Several schools now operate “risk assessment teams” that determine when someone on campus with a psychological disorder is “dangerous.”  Schools differ on what happens next. Is a college obligated to refer that student to local mental health providers or simply tell the student to stay away from campus until he/she chooses to get professional help on their own?

One discussion during the conference made me feel as if I were at my local National Alliance on Mental Illness  meeting. AHEAD members wondered what accomodations, if any, should be given to students who have mental health problems. If a student has bipolar disorder, does that mean he/she should automatically receive extra time to complete an assignment? What should a professor do if a student announces that he has depression and doesn’t have the energy to complete a paper on schedule? 

I suggested that the AHEAD members learn about NAMI’s Family-to-Family classes since parents often get into these same debates over realistic and unrealistic  expectations.

I was impressed by the AHEAD members’ compassion and concern. They were adamant about defending the rights of persons who might need special services to get an education. They didn’t simply want to boot them off campus to avoid potentially embarrassing incidents.

But I also was struck by just how difficult it can be to protect the rights of someone with a disability and also the rights of other students.

These issues are not new.

When my wife, Patti, was a teenager, she and her younger sister, Dana, both took the Red Cross lifesaving course and were certified as lifeguards. Only Dana was deaf and the neighborhood pool board refused to hire her. Patti challenged the board’s decision. She told its members that Dana had to rely more on her sight because she was deaf and that being deaf would actually help her from being distracted when she was watching the swimming  pool. My wife can be very persuasive and the board members relented and hired Dana. No one drown under her watch. Or Patti’s.

What happened to Dana is an example of why it is important for “technical standards” to focus on “what” must be accomplished and not on the “how” — as  Chesney-Walker so thoughtfully put it.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. In medical school I saw neurologist (better known as runner) Sir Roger Bannister examine a kid who wanted to be a diamond cutter. He said because of his tremor he should find another career. I also attended a medical student in hospital because of cystic fibrosis. I suspect the diamond cutter kid could find a way to work despite the tremor, but I’m not sure the med student was likely to live long enough to graduate. I suspect most docs could work with only two fingers. Not sure about the stutterer in broadcasting, but if he wants to be in school and knows the risks, why not?

  2. There needs to be a deep probing into the “whats” not the “hows” to truly find acceptability for graduating students with certain disabilities that work hard through post-secondary school in hopes to land their first-choice ‘dream’ job. If there is a sense of grey area for the employers in regards to technicalities and a lack of knowing ACTUAL capabilities of the person, some sort of considerations are due. Perhaps job testing or trialing. I understand what VCU is doing, but everyone with a disability is a different case and it may be wrong to generalize them. What if there are exceptions?