Guest Blog: Making Reasonable Accommodations for ME/CFS Students

By Michael E. Ottlinger, PhD, DABT

Michael Ottlinger PicAs part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Reasonable Accommodations must be made for individuals with a disability. This includes students at colleges, universities, secondary schools, etc., who no doubt encounter problems stemming from their ME/CFS and related disorders. Such assistance is intended to safeguard their (YOUR) civil rights by allowing them (YOU) to pursue jobs and other life activities, including education, from which they (YOU) might otherwise be excluded. The Act seeks to provide greater opportunities by lowering barriers to participation and eliminating discrimination, whether intentional or not. This Act has been in existence since 1990 and has been a great success, achieving very broad acceptance. (See ADA.gov for more details, including changes that took effect on Jan. 1, 2009.)

A process was created under this Act that requires what are called “Reasonable Accommodations” (RAs). Reasonable Accommodations involve finding ways to enable someone to, say, work a job successfully, by being given assistive technology or some other modification to the environment or, perhaps, a procedure that removes a barrier. Such accommodations must be doable, that is, they cannot place an “undue burden” on the employer or other party. And, the person requesting the accommodation still has to be able to do the thing, whatever it is, when given this help.

A point to highlight here in big bold letters is that where public institutions and education are concerned, there is a companion law that may be extremely relevant for ME/CFS students: The Americans with Disabilities Act Title II Technical Assistance Manual Covering State and Local Government Programs and Services. This holds that qualified individuals with a disability must be provided: “1) Reasonable modifications to a public entity’s rules, policies, or practices; 2) Removal of architectural, communication, or transportation barriers; or 3) Provision of auxiliary aids and services.”

These words open up a wide range of possibilities that can be pursued, but which have not been exploited fully by ME/CFS students. Universities, as an example, have all kind of “rules, policies, or practices” that are not handed down from heaven and will not cause the university to be swallowed up by the earth if they are modified. Also, in an era in which we have so much technology available and, in fact, already being used, it is astonishing that we haven’t been taking better advantage of it to help ME/CFS students progress and succeed.

For example, to address issues like fatigue, including mental and cognitive impairment, some ideas for RAs might include:

  • Reduced credit loads for full-time status. This will make the workloads more acceptable.
  • Reasonable flexibility and delays in deadlines. Exercising flexibility to accommodate periodic flares and worsening of symptoms is reasonable.
  • Providing class video recordings. On those days when a student is too tired to travel to class, or too tired during the actual class period to concentrate, supplemental video might help them continue and, crucially, avoid falling behind as they otherwise would have had they missed these classes.
  • Limitations on class lengths. This also helps limit the amount of time that a student with a condition like Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome would have to stand or sit upright.
  • Allowing longer time periods for testing. Since mental as well as physical fatigue occurs. Possibly even adapting to more and shorter tests.
  • Creatively reducing the energy demands of laboratory classes. This is something that probably has never even been considered, but I am optimistic that we could find ways to do this and still achieve the aims of these activities.

ME/CFS students should be expected to have such problems, and they should be proactively handled. Also, the commonly heard statement: “If I make an exception for you then…” may violate the law.

I hope that we might be able to look more fully at some of these ideas and create a helpful set of RAs for students who need this kind of help as well as for physicians or others asked to provide documentation of these disabilities to do so in an effective manner. Most do not know how to write these letters as required and don’t have the time to research it on their own. This effort does not break radically new ground. The law as written, and as expanded every day on a case-by-case basis, is there to be rightfully applied.

To share your suggestions for Reasonable Accommodations for students with Michael, email: ottlingerme@gmail.com.