Disability Documentation When Studying in the U.S.

Blind woman feels a braille embossed document
To receive the disability services and accessibility you need when studying in the U.S., you may need to show that you have a disability to be eligible.

Although disability-related accommodations and services are provided at no cost to the student, disability office staff may request documentation from the student prior to his or her arrival on campus in order to arrange them. Often, international students to the U.S. will be asked to provide a written report or disability assessment by a qualified diagnostician. For students who are blind or low vision, a school may request a current visual acuity test or functional vision assessment. For Deaf or hard of hearing students, a school may request a recent audiogram. 

In all cases, reports should be typed or otherwise legible, translated into English, when possible, and include a specific diagnosis and clear evidence of a disability. Documentation cannot be denied solely because the assessment format may be different from that used in the United States. Secondary schools may do their own testing in addition to this documentation.

Diagnostic reports should include the diagnostician’s name and credentials as well as the dates of testing. Generally, colleges and universities require that diagnostic reports be dated within three years of the student’s request for accommodations. For students whose disabilities are not subject to change, including students who are blind or Deaf, the three year requirement may be waived.

For individuals with learning or mental health-related disabilities, colleges and universities may require a more recent assessment for the determination of appropriate accommodations; however getting these tests conducted once in the United States may be problematic since the tests do not take into account individuals for whom English is not their native language, and can be expensive.

Students having trouble obtaining documentation should contact the disability services office of the school to which they are applying. Post-secondary institutions are not required to conduct or pay for an evaluation or assessment to document a student's disability. Nonetheless, some institutions do so and/or may assist in identifying an evaluator with a sliding fee scale, bilingual in the student’s native language, or with a background in testing people from other cultures.

Recent changes with the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act restrict overly burdensome documentation requirements, so some disability offices may rely more on observation and a structured interview with the student to determine evidence of a disability and pinpoint the types of accommodations needed.

Deciding what documentation is necessary should be rooted in why disability service providers want the information for a particular student. For all students with disabilities, an accommodation request letter may be helpful to school officials in planning ahead for a student’s access needs. 

Note that college or university faculty/staff do not have the right to access documentation or diagnostic information regarding a student’s disability. Faculty/staff need only know the accommodations that are necessary to provide an equal opportunity for the student.