Iowa Board of Regents

Disability Support Services at Iowa's Public Universities

Ensuring access to education and student success is the first priority of the Board of Regents. At its June meeting, the Board will hear a presentation on the disability support services offered by Iowa’s public universities. The Board values policies and outreach efforts that enable all students, including those with disabilities, to seek and receive a quality education.

The term “students with disabilities” is broad and includes those with physical, psychological, health and learning disabilities, among others. The wide range of support services offered at Iowa’s public universities help accommodate students to pursue their education.

“We see continuing trends for students who might not have otherwise thought they could go to college actually enrolling,” said Mark Harris, director of student disability services at the University of Iowa. “Quite often, support services received in high school help these students attend college when perhaps they wouldn’t have considered this as an option without that assistance.”

Support services vary widely, from braille textbooks for blind students and American Sign Language interpreters for deaf students, to extended time or alternate locations for tests for students with a variety of disabilities. In addition to students who have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or a Learning Disability, a growing number of students who request disability accommodations identify as having a psychological disability, such as anxiety and depression. This growth may be related to the reduced social stigma associated with identifying as a person with psychological or emotional disabilities. 

“I see the growth in our numbers as a positive sign,” Harris said. “These students are aware of their disability and are more comfortable asking for assistance than their peers did a generation ago.”

Special testing accommodations accounted for 44 percent of all disability services provided by Regents universities during the 2017-18 academic year. These accommodations include extra time to complete exams and the ability to take tests in reduced distraction environments.

“Students with ADD, for example, have a hard time getting organized and are more easily distracted, especially by other people,” Harris said. “Extra time and the ability to test in reduced distraction environments can really help these students.”

Qualifying for and using disability services and accommodations has been streamlined in recent years at the University of Iowa. Specifically, the paperwork a student needs to complete during the application process, has been dramatically reduced. The UI is one of just three student disability offices in the Big Ten Conference using the most broadly defined documentation requirements, easing the application burden on students and families.

“We get a lot of feedback from parents expecting a mountain of paperwork or a battle over applying,” Harris said. “When they don’t experience that, they’re really thankful. 

Students wanting to use their accommodations must discuss their accommodations with their instructors. The University of Iowa, and all universities in the United States, cannot legally release disability information to instructors or anyone else. Students control each step of the process, from application to accommodation.

“It’s a student-driven process but we are here every step of the way to support students in talking with faculty regarding their needs,” Harris said. “Students report feeling empowered in having these discussions and that it helps them know their instructors as people first which creates greater confidence for them as students in the classroom.”

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