Marisa Williams
Mercury Staff

Students push for increased transparency in process for approving disability accommodations

Jax Schmisseur struggles with anxiety and relies on his emotional support animal to calm him during his panic attacks. During his freshman year, he sought approval to have his cat live with him in the dorms but ran into roadblocks. The frequency of his panic attacks increased. In the end, he chose to spend the year living without his animal.

“It was such a bad first experience that I didn’t even want to try again,” Schmisseur said. “So now I’m a senior, I haven’t touched that office, haven’t stepped foot back in it since my first time my freshman year.”

The waiting time to obtain approvals for accommodations such as emotional support animals from the Office of Student AccessAbility, however, has elicited concerns from students.

When applying for accommodations through the OSA, students are required to submit relevant medical documentation of their diagnosis from their healthcare provider. Given the student’s condition and their desired accommodations, the OSA will either approve or deny the request. Should they be approved, an accommodation letter is drafted.

Schmisseur, an arts and technology senior, said before he began his first semester at UTD, he referenced the OSA’s website and collected the required paperwork before approaching the office itself. Schmisseur said he was told he’d be contacted a couple weeks before move-in concerning his emotional support animal. A few days before he was scheduled to move into the dorms, he still hadn’t heard anything from either the OSA or student housing. When his mother called the OSA, he said they were told his paperwork had been misplaced.

Kerry Tate, the director of the Office of Student AccessAbility, said missing documentation can be attributed to a number of factors.

“Misplacement could be that students assume that their physician was going to send it to us, and we don’t receive it,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons why we tell the students you need to follow up to let us know that they’re faxing it or they’re sending it to us, because if we get something that’s not tied to another student or it says it’s pending, we don’t even know who the student is because a lot of times, when physicians send something over to us by fax, it may not tie to anybody who has come through the office yet.”

For students living in on-campus facilities, part of the OSA’s involvement in the accommodation process is to send a letter of approval to residential staff. Students who require emotional support animals, for example, must produce the letter before animals are allowed to move in.

A few weeks after his initial request, Schmisseur checked with residence hall staff to see if any progress had been made. They had not received any paperwork regarding his accommodations from the OSA, including approval for an emotional support animal.

The first semester of his sophomore year, he began walking with a cane after being diagnosed with fibromyalgia. After experiencing difficulty with an automated door in the computer science building, Schmisseur went to his professor who then put in a request for the door to receive maintenance.

“It was about the end of the semester before it was fixed, and I’m thankful I have nice classmates who are willing to hold the door open for me,” he said.

Schmisseur said he now sets aside extra time to navigate campus should an elevator or an automatic door be out of order, and he must take a longer route to class.

The Office of Institutional Equity’s website provides a form where anyone can report a barrier on campus, such as an inoperable automatic door. Director of Institutional Equity and ADA Coordinator Heather Dragoo said repairs are addressed rapidly by Kelly Kinnard, the director of physical plant services, unless a part must be ordered.

Talia Henry, an arts and technology senior, said her experience with OSA was positive in the beginning.

“My first semester my freshman year, I was able to get accommodations for my disability, which pretty much equated to telling the professors I have a disability, and saying if I’m on top of my work, to be a little bit more lenient with absences,” Henry said.

Once a student’s file is complete, they are sent an accommodation letter. It is then the responsibility of the student to inform their professors, utilizing the letter, of their need for the specified academic accommodations. 

Laura Smith, the associate dean for health and wellness initiatives, said students must refile for a new accommodation letter each semester. Accommodation letters can be requested through the OSA’s website after submitting proof of registration for the following semester’s classes.

“Hearing about… that they now require you to renew your disability every semester,” Schmisseur said.  “I was like, ‘This is a lifelong disability.’ I don’t want every semester to have to go to the five or six different doctors that you want a note from.”

Students are not required to submit new documentation of their diagnosis should it remain the same in between semesters. Should a student’s diagnosis change, they can turn in the relevant medical documents and their accommodations can be readjusted, if necessary. Tate said it depends on the nature of their diagnosis. Although students must request a new accommodation letter every semester, residential accommodations only need to be renewed each academic year, or when the student signs a new lease.

“Accommodations are not engraved in stone for the four years while you’re here,” Tate said. “It depends on what classes they’re taking — it depends on if the nature of the disability has changed, or if there are things in the classroom that will alleviate having to request for accommodations.”

Henry said she dealt with similar issues of long waiting periods for correspondence from the OSA about her requested accommodations.

“We have a committee that meets once a week, but if it’s not turned in the Friday before our meeting, then there will be a delay, but there are also times that we have to get a consultation with someone else or set up the appointment,” Tate said. “Right now, we are down one person because we did have someone pass away in our office. So, right now, there is a delay because I am having to meet with each one of them. We have high demand right now.”

The OSA provides information packets to familiarize students with the process of requesting services, the guidelines for accommodations, the difference between the accessibility accommodations at the high school level and the university level and the autonomy students have over their decision to request accommodations.

Tate said there are additional factors that affect wait times for accommodation approval, aside from the high volume of requests.

“Just because somebody has a disability, (it) does not automatically qualify them for accommodations. It needs to be determined if it’s going to be provided or not. We take it very seriously. We consult. We make sure that we have all the necessary information,” Tate said.  “Sometimes what students bring in, we don’t see the relationship between the two, so we may have to get in touch with the physician or the health provider.”

She said that a rejection of a student’s requests for accommodations is not a definitive “no.”

“If they got denied, they’re in a pending file. They haven’t really been denied,” Tate said. “The reason they’re not being denied is we are still waiting on whatever is pending to determine if they have that disability or not.”

The OSA notifies students via email about what their file is missing and why their request for accommodations hasn’t been processed. Tate said each student’s medical diagnosis and the accommodations they may need are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

“It can’t be compared to somebody else and what they have received or what they didn’t receive,” she said.

Henry said her issues with missing paperwork continued into her junior year despite having all the required notes from her doctors. When she sought approval for her emotional support dog to live with her in University Village, she did not receive a response from the OSA concerning her accommodation for an emotional support animal.

“It depends on the individual. It could be the documentation. It could be the health records. It could be the registration. It could be various things,” Tate said. “We have to determine if there really is a disability there that qualifies them to get that emotional support animal.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 provides for accommodations in the classroom but does not do so for dormitories or on-campus apartments. Instead, accommodations such as emotional support animals are covered under the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Dragoo said an accommodation cannot fundamentally alter the program or the class in which the student is enrolled, according to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The OSA can thereby seek whatever paperwork is necessary to determine the student is qualified for accommodations. Tate said the university has to comply with state laws to prevent misuse of accommodations.

“There is a law in the state of Texas under the Texas code that if it gets misrepresented, there is a possibility that it could be a misdemeanor,” Tate said. “We’re just trying to make sure we do everything up to file. It does take a process. Sometimes students don’t want to pay the physician or their health provider to get that information, and that delays it.”