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Medical Students Denied Accommodations Despite Disclosing Disability

On Behalf of | Jan 7, 2024 | Students' Rights

Denied Accommodations Despite Disclosing Disability image

In some instances, medical students are not granted accommodations after disclosing their disabilities to schools. Accommodations allow every student, regardless of their unique needs, to have an opportunity to thrive. The unfortunate reality, though, is that some students, after disclosing their disabilities, face roadblocks to their educational goals. This article sheds a light on the issue in hopes that students and school administrators become more informed about accommodations.

What are Accommodations

Accommodations are tools and strategies that bridge the gap for students with disabilities, giving them a chance to succeed in educational settings. Accommodations don’t change the learning objectives but gives students with disabilities opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge. Examples include extended time on exams, accessible materials like a powerful magnifying glass or a large print textbook for those with visual impairments, or extended patient care training for those with processing issues or physical impairments.

Disclosure is the First Step for Accommodations

Before receiving accommodations, students in postsecondary institutions must disclose their disabilities to the school’s Office of Disability Services. Notice, this is not done during the application process or at the admissions office. (And as a student, if you don’t see an office of disability services, look for an office title with words like accommodations, access, or equity.)

This disclosure step is quite different than in elementary and high schools where the responsibility for disclosure falls to the educators, administrators and even parents. In secondary settings, meetings before the school year begins (and throughout the year if needed) are held to pass on student information regarding their disabilities to the next term’s teachers and to discuss student progress among teachers and parents. College policies are much different, though.

Legal Protections and Self-Advocacy

Legally, accommodations in medical schools and in other postsecondary settings are mandated by federal civil rights laws – the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

But as we stated above, responsibility for seeking accommodations falls to you, the student. Advocacy involves not only knowing your rights but actively engaging with your school to ensure those rights are respected. Self-advocacy is a must!

Denial of Accommodations

Unfortunately, though, disclosure of a disability and self-advocating do not guarantee accommodations for college students. For example, in a 2022 study regarding the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) Step 1, researchers surveyed around 80 schools and found that 50% of the students with disabilities who registered for the test that semester were denied accommodations for it. Of those denied, about 35% failed the exam, and a small number were dismissed from their medical programs altogether. Denial of accommodations can have serious, life-altering consequences.

What the Courts Say about Accommodations

Some accommodation cases have been litigated, and like with most legal cases, the decisions are based on the specific situations. There’s no “one size fits all” decision.

In the case Dean vs. University at Buffalo School of Medical & Biomedical Sciences, a student battling depression asked for extended time off from school for his medication to stabilize, allowing him to properly prepare for an exam. The school denied his request, and the student sued. After going to trial, the court ruled that the school didn’t show careful consideration for the student’s request, which would’ve let him stay in the medical program while not causing undue burden to the school.

In the instance above, the court sided with the student. Yet, medical education institutions are not required to grant all requests and especially if requests change the learning expectations. (Modifications, which are changes to learning requirements, are not given in postsecondary settings. They may be in elementary and high schools, though.) In Powell vs. National Board of Medical Examiners, the same court as above decided that a medical school didn’t break the law when it required a student with a disability to pass a specific exam on the third attempt, like all students are expected to. The court sided with the school’s reason for not allowing a fourth attempt, ruling it as a change to a program requirement and, thus, not an accommodation.

If You’re Denied Accommodations…

If you’re a medical student with a disability, first, follow your school’s protocol. Disclose your disability at the Office of Disability Services and openly speak with teachers about your needs. But also, contact the Education Litigation Group if you’re denied reasonable accommodations. You have rights as a student under federal laws.

Accommodations are more than mere conveniences for students with disabilities; they are about recognizing the diverse needs of every student and ensuring that each can contribute their unique talents. Despite legal safeguards, a troubling pattern of denial of accommodations continues, and we want to eradicate this pattern. If you need help, contact us.