Ed Martinelli, the director of the University Accessibility Center, answered questions students sent in regarding the center and accommodations during their time at BYU.
Kyra Hale, a BYU student who organized the event, said she felt it’s important to provide clarification on how things pertaining to disabilities work on campus. She believes educating students on how the university can help them with their disabilities is important.
“It can help them realize they do have equal opportunity and give them equal access to succeed,” Hale said.
One of the questions posed during the forum was regarding whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applied to students at BYU. Martinelli said, due to the university being a private institution, the main policy the university abides by is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The act is intended to protect students specifically from discrimination based on disabilities.
The main focus of the act can be described as, “No otherwise qualified individual with handicaps in the United States … shall, solely by reason of her or his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Martinelli said, although ADA does not specifically apply to BYU campus, Section 504 is intended to protect students with disabilities similarly to ADA.
“ADA and 504 are pretty close in their alignment,” He said. “Specifically as it relates to most of what students deal with, 504 is the focus.”
Martinelli defined disability as “a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits major life activities.” He went on to define ideas such as “substantial limit,” and “major life activity.” A substantial limit is considered in comparison to the “average person,” meaning if a student cannot do something that is reasonably expected of a student, they are substantially limited. Martinelli also explained that a “major life activity” is generally applied broadly. He said that learning in general is considered a major life activity while taking tests is not.
Another topic of the Q&A was accommodations that can be provided by the university to students with disabilities, and how that process takes place. Martinelli said the accessibility department determines how a disability impacts a student individually, then decides what accommodations are needed. After both the student and an accessibility coordinator discuss the accommodations, then the coordinator sends letters to students to distribute to their teachers, detailing the accommodations necessary. Students can choose which professors they would like letters sent to. The accessibility department knows when they send a letter to a student, when the student sends the letters, and when the professor opens the letter.
Although students go through a process to determine the accommodations needed, there are some reasons that professors can deny a request, based on the needs of each classroom.
“If a student’s accommodation would fundamentally change the course, bring up health and safety issues, or unreasonable burdens on the professor,” then an accommodation may not be available for a specific class, Martinelli said.
If a professor says no to an accommodation, students should ask them to contact the accessibility department and contact the department personally.
One of the final questions posed during the discussion was centered on students feeling guilty or burdensome to their professors by asking for accommodations.
“If we have approved (the accommodations), we see them as a reasonable accommodation for the student,” Martinelli said. It is important for students to understand that they fit the disability, and it is important for professors to understand that these needs are real as well, he said. According to Martinelli, accommodations are provided for students to have equal access to learning.
Accommodations also speak to identity, Martinelli said. He gave a metaphor of the Kirtland Temple, which was foundationally and structurally built poorly, he said. However, when reading in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord says the house is acceptable to Him. Martinelli said the building is His House, where His Spirit will reside, and he said that students with disabilities could learn from reading that section. He said they could see how their influence could be used for good in the world, although their mortal temple may be structurally not of the same caliber as another.