Thoughts on new guidance on documentation from AHEAD

by Sharon Downs | University of Arkansas at Little Rock | Director | Disability Resource Center

The new guidance from AHEAD on documentation practices is a welcome change. Many of us have been moving in this direction for the last several years, and it is going to be quite helpful to have our national professional organization provide this level of support and credibility. For some, though, this could be a scary time. The old way of doing things was familiar and comfortable. Change and moving ahead are never as easy as sitting still – but they’re a lot more rewarding!

In my mind, DS personnel now have a couple of issues to address: (1) what to post on our Web sites about documentation, and (2) defining our own internal procedures.


Under the new guidance the purpose for posting documentation requirements seems to have shifted. In the past it was so that students would come in with the paperwork we needed to satisfy our institutional protocol. Now, however, it should be to convey to students a welcoming message – an invitation to begin dialogue with the DS staff about what barriers the student may be facing or anticipating. Part of that discussion may involve third-party documentation, but to publish that as a requirement runs counter to the ADAAA, and it reinforces ‘old thinking’ that is no longer applicable.

Still, our inclination might be to post our documentation requirements in very specific terms on our departmental Web sites. I know that has been the case for many schools for years. However, the AHEAD guidelines make clear that a deliberative and collaborative process is the path to establishing accommodations. This makes it all but impossible to say that we definitely need any particular form of documentation. It wouldn’t make sense to try to describe something that is so variable and nuanced in concrete and absolute terms.

There is no need for third-party documentation in cases where primarily and/or secondary forms of documentation suffice. So why not simply post on your Web site that the process for determining accommodations is a collaborative one that may or may not require third-party documentation. Encourage students to contact you to engage in a discussion to identify and remove barriers in their academic experience, and leave it at that. If documentation is needed, it will be an informed decision based on real information, and not hypotheticals or blanket statements.

The welcoming tone of this language can help students avoid putting themselves through extensive (and expensive) tests unnecessarily, or becoming so discouraged that they don’t make that first appointment to meet with you about accommodations.

As you redesign your published documentation policy, imagine how it might be read from a new student’s perspective. Is it going to be seen as an open invitation to contact the DS office? Will students with no documentation who are experiencing barriers feel encouraged to begin a dialogue with you? Will they feel discouraged? Use the answers to these questions to guide you in designing the most welcoming policy possible.


If nothing else, the old hard-and-fast rules for documentation (i.e. must be dated within three years, etc.) gave us consistency. The need for consistency and credibility as a department is just as prevalent today. Departmental procedures for determining what external documentation is needed (if any) will help to ensure that students are getting a consistent response from you and your staff. Again, the consistency is no longer in requiring the same information from each student. Rather, it is by applying a consistent process for all students with whom we meet. This ensures that we are being fair to students, and at the same time protecting our institutions.

My guess is that at the AHEAD conference in New Orleans, many of us will be engaging in conversations to start to figure out what those internal procedures need to look like. Some of us have such processes in place already and will be sharing them in the Out of the Box strand of concurrent sessions. At my university, we developed a decision tree to guide us. Others have created different ways to ensure they are engaged in a consistent process with students. We can all learn from each other’s experiences as we go down this road together.


What we do as DS professionals in postsecondary institutions is varied, complicated, and fascinating. But for too long we have been reduced to being the ‘documentation police’ in the eyes of some. In my opinion, the focus on documentation has taken up far too much of our psychic energy for far too long. This shift away from requiring extensive external documentation before we’ve determined what’s actually necessary in each situation will help us focus on where the real problems lie – the environments in which students interact. When there are barriers in those environments, whether they be programmatic, physical, attitudinal, or technological, we must work together as a team to remove those barriers. The new guidance regarding documentation helps free us up to put our energies into identifying and removing barriers. And isn’t that why we’re here in the first place?

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