Accessing accessibility: students seeking accommodations face disconnect with DAS

Oregon State student Jenna White stands in front of the MU in Corvallis OR on Mar 13 2024.
Oregon State student Jenna White stands in front of the MU in Corvallis OR on Mar 13 2024.
Landon Marks

Imagine that a freshman student arrives on campus for their first year and applies for Oregon State University Disability Access Services accommodations for a neurological disability.

Easy, right? But two terms later, accommodations still haven’t been granted and the next step is a mystery.

This is exactly what first-year political science major Jenna White experienced when she came to OSU in fall 2023, armed with documentation for her anxiety disorder from her doctor so she could bring an emotional support animal to the dorms.

However, after a multi-week wait, the note her doctor wrote simply wasn’t enough for DAS and they insisted on documentation from a psychiatrist, which White didn’t have.

“(A psychiatrist) wasn’t an option for me because the house that I grew up in was like, ‘Mental health, (that’s) not really real,’” White said.

Siena Buchanan, a sophomore studying biology and genetics, had a similar experience when she sought accommodations. She provided DAS with a document detailing her diagnosis, but had to have a Zoom meeting with multiple DAS committee members to go through all of her accommodation requests and explain why she needed each of them.

“The burden of proof is always on you and the assumption feels like it is always that you are someone trying to game the system rather than someone who is genuinely just trying to get accommodations,” Buchanan said.

Across several states during the COVID-19 pandemic, the median wait to establish care with a psychiatrist was 67 days for in-person appointments and 43 days for virtual appointments, according to Medscape, a medical website.

DAS settled on a letter in a precise format from White’s primary doctor, so she went back to gather that new documentation. White said her doctor’s new letter was adequate to bring an ESA on a plane, but was still not enough for DAS.

White reached out to DAS via email, re-explaining the situation.

“It was the same robotic answer, the automated email,” White said. “There was no personalization.”

Once she was on campus, White went to talk to Counseling and Psychological Services and explained the situation to them. According to White, CAPS was very helpful in providing resources and information, and sent her on her way knowing that it should work this time.

Instead, DAS asked her to wait another two weeks. She later received another rejection informing her that she didn’t fill the form out correctly.

“I was like, ‘Okay, well great. My doctor’s not in the state and also I went to CAPS, so what can I do?’” White said.

When White tried to communicate with DAS again in September after  back-and-forth communication since June. She re-explained her needs in detail and was met with a similar response that said the form was incorrectly filled out.

Assistant Director of DAS, Earlee Kerekes-Mishra, said there are changes happening at DAS. They are working on aligning with the Association of Higher Education and Disabilities on accepting student reports as adequate documentation.

“We want to get (students) served and supported as quickly as possible,” Kerekes-Mishra said, “so we’ve gotten to this change.”

There are several steps to getting accommodations, starting with admitted students sending in an application and uploading documentation. After that, DAS reviews the submitted information and tries to provide conditional or temporary accommodations in the meantime for students who need to send in additional documentation.

Once the application is in, it can take two to four weeks to review and determine eligibility before the student gets their eligibility letter, Kerekes-Mishra said.

Kerekes-Mishra acknowledged there are challenges around seeing providers, especially in a timely manner, so DAS tries to provide a more “efficient experience.”

Back to DAS again, this time in person, White said a DAS employee told her to email them to set up an appointment which would occur “in a week or two.”

“That was the last that I had ever heard of that,” White explained. “So eventually I just gave up and I was like, you know what, this is giving me more anxiety than it would relieve if I got my (accommodations), so it was bad.”

According to Buchanan, DAS also canceled multiple meetings, some of them at the last minute, which made the whole process longer and more stressful, especially considering students have to call to make each appointment.

White hasn’t been back since her last experience, though she is working with a CAPS counselor on getting a psychiatric service dog which will, hopefully, be easier to approve through DAS.

One of the downsides of CAPS, according to White, is that the counselors there can’t prescribe medications or fill out the necessary forms for DAS, which feels “counterproductive.”

“They just want such specific paperwork,” White said. “I understand because you don’t want some random animal living in the dorm … but it creates a lot of issues.”

The lack of diagnostic ability and medication management on campus isn’t all that unusual. An article from The Hechinger Report details a similar experience where a student needed more documentation and neuropsychological testing which, unavailable through the campus counseling center, would take six months on a waitlist and cost upwards of $3,000.

The article points out that this “flaw” is pervasive on a systematic level. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, universities are not required to identify students with disabilities, nor help with evaluation costs.

White said she feels that needing so much proof creates more barriers to getting accommodations for those who need them. She said it’s also concerning that the process starts over every time and that the wait is so long.

“We’ve heard from students and we heard very clearly from students that (the process) is not necessarily always equitable,” Kerekes-Mishra said.

When she was living on campus last year, struggling with major mental health problems, Buchanan said she wanted to move off campus to live with friends, but the very idea of going to DAS to seek an exemption was too stressful after her previous experience.

“Knowing that I would basically face another trial of like, ‘Are you worthy to get this accommodation?’ I just decided it wasn’t worth it and just suffered through the rest of the year,” Buchanan explained, “which is not the impression that disability services should give to disabled students who need support.”

White and Buchanan’s experiences aren’t exactly unusual. If anything, they’re common amongst universities. According to Mental Health America’s 2021 report, students applying for accommodations often find roadblocks like staff with discriminatory beliefs about mental health and unsatisfactory knowledge about psychiatric disabilities, exhausting documentation processes and faculty refusing to provide requested accommodations.

Within the MHA report, a survey found that only two in 10 students didn’t want accommodations, but seven in 10 respondents with mental health diagnoses were not registered for disability accommodations regardless. A third of surveyed students were not aware that their college even had mental health accommodations available.

According to Kerekes-Mishra, numbers for disabled students applying for accommodations are “soaring” at OSU as well as nationwide.

She said they had around 200 students complete an application by the end of the fall 2023 term, and fall is generally their busiest term of the year with incoming students arriving from community colleges and junior colleges as well as new students.

“I can tell you last year (DAS) ended the year just shy of 2,000 students,” Kerekes-Mishra said. “We are currently serving 1,894 students, we have 586 applications that have already received an eligibility letter that we’re waiting for students to follow up with us about and we’re processing a total of 920 applications at this time.”

For approving the specifics of accommodation requests, Kerekes-Mishra said it often comes down to the impacts more than the disability itself.

One hypothetical she offered was note-taking, which is an accommodation that comes with multiple options such as the LiveScribe pen, which records audio while the student takes notes, Glean, which records audio in chunks and converts it to text at the end and peer-to-peer note taking, which may be ideal for blind students.

“Two people can have the same diagnosis and it affects them very differently, right?” Kerekes-Mishra said. “Sometimes it’s very situation-specific, sometimes it’s not.”

When an application for accommodations isn’t going as planned, sometimes there are next steps to take. When a student is only found eligible for some of the requested accommodations, Kerekes-Mishra said they reach out to students to schedule a meeting if they need to have a conversation to better understand their needs.

“They might get an email from us saying, ‘Hey, we want to talk some more, we want to hear a little bit more about your impacts,’” Kerekes-Mishra said. “(Some requests) are not reasonable in the environment that we’re in, so sometimes a letter saying ‘At this time we don’t see support for services’ is sent as well.”

Kerekes-Mishra said the housing accommodation process is similar, though there is also a disability accommodation request form that needs to be submitted through the housing portal.

This alerts housing to a student seeking accommodation, and there is ultimately a conversation between the student and DAS to clarify the “impacts” on the student’s housing. It can be complex sometimes, Kerekes-Mishra said, since there are so many different configurations of rooms and restrooms in residence halls.

She said that, since DAS is more familiar with the housing environments at OSU, sometimes they suggest alternative accommodations to students that will serve as well as—or sometimes better than—the original request.

“We want to really try to help find a really good fit for students,” Kerekes-Mishra said.

According to Kerekes-Mishra, when it comes to invisible disabilities, it still comes down to the specific impacts. There is a space at the end of an accommodation request for applicants to explain more about their disability and requests if they didn’t find a place on the standard form.

DAS also has a space on the application to explain how the student operates in various learning environments like lectures, labs, studios, performances and more.

“We really want that student voice to come through and say, ‘this is what I’m experiencing,’” Kerekes-Mishra said. “We can look up ‘What does ADHD say that they’re going to experience? Oh, these few things,’ but we really want to hear it from students.”

Kerekes-Mishra acknowledged that things can change term-to-term as students progress through school, citing examples like the difference between 100-level classes and 400-level classes, students who change majors and classes that may involve fieldwork.

“It’s not just the new students coming in,” Kerekes-Mishra said, “sometimes it’ll be sophomore, junior, senior, grad-level students.”

To keep things fair, DAS applications are processed in the order they are received, regardless of the individual needs or disability of the applicants involved.

“We try to do that because it would be really rough for one student who’s been waiting for three weeks and then the student who applied today gets pushed through today,” Kerekes-Mishra said. “I think that that can be an equity issue, in my opinion.”

Kerekes-Mishra said it would be great to have more DAS desk staff so they could push applications through more quickly, and they are in the process of hiring a new DAS advisor on top of the new one who joined the team in January.

“I’m hopeful that we will see some of those numbers change,” Kerekes-Mishra said. “In fact, I will say that, since we’ve changed our documentation process and hired new staff, we have seen students be moved through much quicker than they have in past years.”

Kerekes-Mishra said DAS and other OSU offices are “continually” seeking further support from the institution. She said it’s difficult to sort out where the money should go when it’s all “doing good work,” such as the Basic Needs Center and CAPS, both of which are accessed by numerous students.

According to Kerekes-Mishra, applications for ESA approval are part of the housing application, where students can provide a form that their provider has filled out. She explained that the conversation around emotional support animals or assistance animals is very “nuanced” and can take time, especially if the student can’t articulate why they need a support animal.

Kerekes-Mishra said sometimes it can be confusing because terminology can vary from institution to institution, such as electronic textbooks vs. e-tex vs. audiobooks. She said there will be 20 or so students per year who don’t get approved for any requests for various reasons, such as the accommodation being unreasonable in their environment.

There is an appeals process available, which is detailed in all of the eligibility letters DAS sends out, according to Kerekes-Mishra. That way, students can appeal to the director or director’s designee.

If the denial is overturned, the accommodations are implemented. However, if the denial is upheld, students can then appeal to the dean of students through the associate vice provost. The process is available through the DAS website.

Other resources for students with disabilities include the Disabled Student Lounge and the Disabled Student Union.

Kerekes-Mishra said OSU’s Equal Opportunity and Access team has done extensive work to make the physical campus more accessible, such as the remodel outside the library, and that they’ve had instructional designers do “awesome work” to make online materials more accessible.

“I see that access coming,” Kerekes-Mishra said. “I think that there’s still room to grow, right? Everywhere, there’s room to grow. And I think that the area that we could probably grow the most in right now is our online presence of accessibility of our classes and our websites.”

For students still awaiting DAS approval, Kerekes-Mishra said they can absolutely reach out to professors and let them know that they’re applying to DAS so there can be a discussion about accommodations. She added that faculty will sometimes reach out to DAS to confirm the need for accommodations.

“What we respond to faculty is, if you would give any other student in your class extra time or an extension on something for any other reason, ‘the dog ate my homework’, ‘my car broke down’, whatever, then feel free to give that,” Kerekes-Mishra said. “If you’re only giving it based on disability, then that determination really should come from our office so that we can make sure that we’re providing the appropriate accommodation.”


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