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Self Disclosure in Higher Education: A Guide for Individuals with Disabilities

Posted by attorney Diane Wiscarson

Am I required to tell my school about my disability/How much am I required to tell a school/employer about my disability?

Unlike a K-12 school, a postsecondary institution does not have an affirmative obligation to find and serve students with disabilities. Postsecondary schools are only required to provide reasonable accommodations for “known" disabilities. If you need accommodations from your school, you must disclose your disability and the nature of those accommodations (e.g. accessibility of classes, events and housing, reading, processing speed, visual impairment, note taking). It is also helpful if you can propose potential accommodations.

Schools are allowed to set reasonable standards for documentation required to prove a disability. The documentation usually must come from a medical doctor, psychologist or other qualified diagnostician, and may be required to include any or all of the following:

  • A diagnosis of your current disability;
  • The date of the diagnosis;
  • How the diagnosis was reached;
  • The credentials of the professional making the diagnosis;
  • How your disability affects a major life activity; and
  • How your disability affects your academic performance.

Generally, the documentation should include enough information for you and the school to determine what your needs are and how to reasonably accommodate those needs.

If you do not require accommodation, then you are not obligated to volunteer any information to your school about your disability.

What is a school allowed to ask me, and what questions do I have to answer?

Postsecondary schools cannot ask applicants about disabilities before admitting them. However, a postsecondary school can ask about an applicant’s ability to meet academic and technical standards for admission provided the questions are not intended to reveal the existence of disabilities.

After a student is admitted, a postsecondary school is allowed to ask, confidentially, if the student has a disability that may require accommodation, but the student is under no obligation to disclose a disability.

When a student is applying for reasonable accommodations from a postsecondary school, the school may require documentation of current disability and need for accommodation. The school must tell the student what kind of documentation is required.

What information should I volunteer beyond the requirements?

If you have an IEP or § 504 plan from your high school, you should provide a copy of the accommodations documentation to the school, after you are accepted, to help them provide the accommodations you need.

As a basic principle, once you have accepted a school's offer of admission you should share as much information related to your need or potential need for accommodation as you feel comfortable sharing. The more the school knows, the better they can work with you to provide good accommodations. It is also helpful to establish a record of having a disability and a potential need for accommodations, even if you don’t need them at the moment. Most disabilities impact major life activities differently, depending on a variety of factors that may change over time. If you establish a record of potential need for accommodation when you start at a school, even if you are not currently experiencing much impact from your disability at the time, school personnel are generally more understanding if your disability flares up later.

If you are using the school’s housing and/or dining facilities or participating in extracurricular activities/events, it is important to inform the school of any reasonable accommodations you might need in those areas as well.

What questions should I refuse to answer, or what information should I not diclose?

If you feel particularly uncomfortable sharing information with the school, and the confidentiality laws do not ease that discomfort, then you can keep to yourself any information not directly related to accommodations needed at the moment.

If your disability has an impact on your life, but no bearing on your education or any school service you are interested in using, then there is no reason to share that information with the school.

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