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September 2012

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Accommodations for GMAT® Test Takers

GMAC is committed to proving reasonable accommodations on the GMAT® exam.  All test takers with disabilities should read both the GMAT Handbook and the GMAT Handbook Supplement for Test Takers With Disabilities. The GMAT Handbook provides critical information that every test taker, with or without a disability, must know to take the GMAT exam. The Supplement provides test takers with disabilities additional guidance on the process and requirements for requesting GMAT accommodations. Test takers with disabilities requesting accommodations on the GMAT® exam should file their requests well in advance.

Student Accommodations: What Is Reasonable?

Guest columnist Kendra Johnson, director of disability accommodations at the Graduate Management Admission Council, explains how complex it is to define reasonable accommodations for students with learning and other disabilities.

By Kendra Johnson

High-profile court cases in recent years involving claims by students that schools are not accommodating  their disabilities can be confusing for those on all sides. With recent amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the issues surrounding the reasonableness of accommodations requests are becoming more complex.

Under both the Americans with Disabilities Act, as recently amended, and Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, a reasonable accommodation is considered to be a modification or adjustment to a course, program, service, or facility, which ensures that a qualified student with a disability is not excluded, segregated, or otherwise treated differently.

This can all be easily misinterpreted.

That is because neither of these federal laws actually dictates a prescribed list of reasonable accommodations. Rather, the two statutes provide a broad description of the necessary actions that institutions must consider. So in defining just what is “reasonable,” in the context of higher education, it is often easier to define what is not reasonable.

Case law has dictated that a modification or adjustment is not reasonable if it would do any of the following:

  • Fundamentally alter the essential nature of the course, curriculum or program
  • Constitute services of a personal nature (such as private tutoring)
  • Result in an undue administrative or financial burden for the institution
  • Result in posing a direct threat to the health or safety of self or others

Let’s take a brief look at each of these.

Fundamental Alterations

Substantial changes to admissions criteria, the way a course or program is delivered, or the way an exam is administered, is not required by colleges and universities if any of these changes would fundamentally alter what is being taught or measured.

In some instances, the manner in which a degree program is delivered is the key issue. For instance, in an intensive, fast-paced weekend executive MBA program, a student with a legitimate physical disability unable to attend class regularly and participate in group projects may be denied a request to participate via live streaming media. Why? The nature of the program may be such that face-to-face interaction is necessary to facilitate the learning process at hand. Some in-class activities may simply not be able to be accomplished from afar without changing the intended outcome of the activity.

Personal Services

For some students with disabilities, assistance from specialized tutors is perhaps the most prevalent accommodation in the K-12 setting. However, the courts have long concluded that tutoring is a “personal service” and thus not required as a reasonable accommodation by colleges and universities.

Some manner of tutoring is typically available to all students on nearly all college campuses. However, a student requesting that an institution provide a private tutor with professional experience teaching students with disabilities, or that an instructor adapt his or her teaching style to the individual’s learning style, may well find that request deemed unreasonable. Requests that are of a personal preference in nature and scope are not viewed as reasonable and obligatory by most institutions.
Undue Burden

My review of case law has uncovered no instance in which the courts have allowed an institution to refuse to provide accommodations solely on the basis of cost.

However, as a former college administrator, I can recall instances in which requests for accommodations were viewed by some to be an undue administrative burden. For instance, an institution may
determine that it is not reasonable to prohibit the classmates and dorm mates of a student with a chemical sensitivity disorder the use of perfumes, deodorants, or hair products while in the student’s presence. Administratively, it may be simply impossible to enforce.

Direct Threat

Although rare, there are instances in which the provision of an accommodation can pose a direct threat to the health or safety of other students. For example, consider the student with a visual impairment who uses a guide dog, and who shares a class with another student who has severe reaction to dog hair. The “direct threat” argument may not be used student to remove a service animal from a classroom. Instead, the institution may use its regular procedure for identifying accommodations or modification for both students, perhaps assigning each to different sections of the same class.

What's reasonable, then, will continue to be decided case by case. "Reasonableness" will very often consider not just the needs of students with disabilities but also the nature and purpose of the course or program.

Kendra Johnson, EdD, is director of disability accommodations for Graduate Management Admission Council, owner of the GMAT exam.

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