Awareness, Accommodations and Technical Assistance for University Students with Neurological Disabilities

By Professor Reagan-Lorraine Lavorata


In this article, I will be giving an overview of neurological disabilities and some of the ways that people with these kinds of disabilities can be accommodated in the work place and at the university. It will be demonstrated what role assistive technology, personal assistance and special training play in the success of students, employees and faculty with disabilities. The important issue of the role of personal assistance and technology and why they are necessary accommodations especially for those with neurological disabilities, will be expounded upon.

Background on 504/ADA/Current Policy in Higher Education in the US

The Rehabilitation Act is a piece of legislation passed by Congress in 1973 to prohibit entities receiving federal funds from discrimination against "qualified people with disabilities". A qualified person with a disability is an individual who meets all the requirements of the job, programme, college major, for both the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA.  In institutes of higher learning, both pieces of legislation cover all qualified persons with disabilities who meet the entry programme entry criteria of the college and who can document the existence of a disability as defined by the ADA. For example, if a person with cerebral palsy applies for a PhD in Economics and she has all the requirements to get into the program (for example an MA in Economics, background in statistics and a GPA of 3.5), she cannot be denied admission on the basis of her disability. Under this act if there is an equally qualified person competing with her, she would get in on the affirmative action platform. 

This law requires that "reasonable accommodations" be given to such qualified disabled persons. A reasonable accommodation is any modification to a job or program in order to make it accessible to people with disabilities. For the PhD student in economics, this may mean extended time for tests and assignments and possibly more assistance with her dissertation from her sponsor. 

Under the both Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person with a disability is a person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity such as walking, seeing, learning, hearing, performing motor tasks, balance, etc. A person with a disability may also be a person with a record of such impairment (ex. a person with cancer, heart disease) and the last category is a person who is regarded as having an impairment even if one does not exist as in a person with a disfigurement. 

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination and requires affirmative action to people with disabilities in entities receiving federal funds or federal agencies. Examples are public schools, colleges and universities, government agencies, airports and all such entities that receive federal assistance.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a civil rights legislation proposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, passed by Congress and signed by President Bush in 1990. This law mandates equal access and opportunity to people with disabilities and prohibits discrimination against "qualified persons with disabilities", defined the same way as in the Rehabilitation Act. In this case, however, there is no affirmative action so if the disabled person competes with someone of equal qualifications, the other person may be selected for the job or admission into the university. The Americans with Disabilities Act covers private industry (which includes federal contractors, covered by both laws), and state and local government.

Public schools are included under state and local government and so are state universities and community colleges.  Private colleges and universities are covered under Title III, places of public accommodation, for providing equal access and accommodations for students. 

The ADA also requires "reasonable accommodations" to qualified disabled persons and the meaning is the same as in 504. Examples of reasonable accommodations in the workplace may be a modification to policies, flexible time, architectural barrier removal, etc. 

For students in colleges and universities, reasonable accommodations may be extended to test and assignment time, readers, note-takers, etc. For persons with neurological disabilities, personal assistants and buddy systems may be necessary. These services however are not covered by 504 or the ADA and this must be changed.  Therefore, we are looking to improve in future policy the access to personal assistant services in the workplace and in higher education, including graduate school. Personal assistance is not considered an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act which is problematic to persons with neurological disabilities. The criteria for disability and for meeting the minimum qualifications in a college program are the same in the ADA as with 504.

Reasonable accommodations for students in all ADA titles and in 504, are based on the documented impact of the disability in the college or workplace. Reasonable accommodations are one method of ensuring equal access when the impact of a disability interacts with non-essential elements of a course, program, job, etc. Accommodations by their very nature must be based on the functional impact of the disability. In the spirit of the ADA, we cannot allow discrimination and must ensure that the disabled students and employees are treated like any other student or employee. However, accommodations must be made. Also awareness of different disabilities is very important due to the many misconceptions of people with disabilities.

Neurological Disabilities 

Neurological disabilities are the most misunderstood disabilities in the workplace and in institutions of higher learning.   These disabilities affect the functions of the central nervous system, mentally, physically, perceptually, or motorically. Some examples of such disabilities include developmental disabilities as cerebral palsy, ataxia; perceptual motor delays; developmental orthopedic problems; spina bifida; some learning disabilities; general non-specific neurological impairments, and adult-onset disabilities such as strokes; orthopedic disabilities from accidents; spinal injury; and multiple sclerosis.

Usually neurological disabilities affect such areas of functioning as judgment, motor skills, transfer of theory to practice, perceptual abilities, physical mobility and mechanical abilities, spatial and proxemic skills.  The latter are the skills necessary for most types of employment and graduate school programs. However, generally people with neurological disabilities are above average or highly intelligent, therefore such conditions can be very frustrating for both employees and students with such conditions.

Suggestions for employee accommodations in the workplace, depending on the job, can range from job coaching, a buddy system, group assignments and projects, extra learning curves, extra time to conduct tasks, modification of job descriptions for non-essential job functions, or alternative tasks to substitute for ones of difficulty (e.g. swap tasks with fellow employee). Many of these employees need personal assistant services, but access to such services are limited and many employers do not favor such services and often lose patience with such employees. 

In college and graduate school, such disabilities require the patience of fellow students if there is group work and of course added patience from the professors, administrators and advisors. Accommodations may include group assignments, extended time on tests and assignments, and note takers. Many such students will need tutoring and personal assistance, but these are not presently considered accommodations rather they are considered personal services according to the ADA (DOJ, 1992). Often, specially in graduate school, students with neurological disabilities are given up on by their dissertation sponsors because of the extra assistance that they require from others with judgment and motor tasks.

Assistive Technology's Role

As for assistive technology, there are several types of software programs that facilitate learning through using neural networks, fuzzy logic and decision making data bases for people with difficulty with judgment and executive decision making.  Therefore technology as well as personal assistance can play a role here.  Neural networks simulate the impulses and neurotransmissions of our own nervous system and help use fuzzy logic which is judgment and shades of gray decision making models to help students with these disabilities make judgments.  A skill that is so essential in higher education and professional employment.

In addition, there are also virtual reality simulators that can illustrate what judgments must be made in a simulated office situation so employee can apply the same situation in the real world. Also there are software programs which work as a decision making database helping a neurologically impaired student or employee make executive, strategic management decisions in production, finance, etc.   An example of such programs Dynamind. Of course simple spell and grammar checkers are helpful for students and employees with perceptual disabilities as well as for the population at large. 

One can also see how assistive technology it not only beneficial to the person with the disability, but can also be beneficial to other students, faculty and employees as well.  A good example is if an employee or student must use a voice activated software due to a motor impairment.  Other people like law students, education students and busy executives, can use this software to speed up their data entry work without using a keyboard. 

Unfortunately, attitudes towards people with disabilities have negatively impacted disability policy. In the workplace and in tertiary education, specially graduate school, there are limited accommodations for people with neurological disabilities.  An increase in funding is needed for buddy systems and personal assistance services and specialized training to help employees and students with perceptual, motor, mobility and judgment problems ameliorate some of those issues in the workplace and at the university. As educators and employers, we must also dispel the emphasis that time is money. Instead we must view the whole person and look at the talents of people with neurological disabilities in education and the workplace, and be more patient and understanding.

In closing, it is evident that with buddy systems, personal assistance access, employer and educator patience and assistive technology, people with neurological disabilities can achieve higher professional objectives. Each of these factors can increase access to educational and professional opportunity and increased earnings potential of disabled persons.


Biography of Submitting Author

Professor Reagan-Lorraine Lavorata, MBA, is an adjunct college teacher/lecturer of business and computers.  In addition, she lectures on disability rights, space spin-offs that assist the disabled, disability laws and American disability policy in higher education. She is an expert on the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Professor Lavorata has lectured on disability rights and awareness in higher education at many colleges and universities and conferences including the ATHAREP Conference, which took place at the University of Orsay in France. 

Professor Lavorata is pursuing her doctoral degree part time at Columbia University, Teachers College in New York. She conducts many workshops and writes papers and articles on disability issues. In addition, she also has life-long experiences with several physical and neurological disabilities.


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