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Accommodating American Sign Language Students Who Have Disabilities:

Also see: Time-and-a-half

[An example of a typical student disability accommodation request at my day job.]

Dear Dr. V,

I am a student with a disability.  As such I'm entitled to time-and-a-half on tests. Please let me know how this might be handled for your course.

_____________ (name of student)


[I sometimes use the template below to respond to students who request disability-related accommodations at the traditional (in-person) university where I teach.]

Dear _______,

Hello :)
The online quizzes are "infinite time" (since they are currently open and you can start "right now").  It typically takes less than a half-hour to input the answers to those tests and you literally have hundreds of hours to do them. Thus it would be silly to ask for "additional time" on quizzes that are open for "weeks."  Testing accommodations are meant to insure sufficient time to take a test -- not facilitate procrastination in taking a test.

As far as the in-person exams, please "try" taking the first one in the regular manner and during the regular time frame.

If you feel your resulting test score is less that you would have been capable of if you had more time then I'll let you take a different version of the exam (different questions but covering the same lesson material) either via a video (that can be rewound) or possibly live one-on-one.

I'm open to other reasonable approaches as well.
Dr. V

p.s. The information below is not directed at you.  It is just something I include in emails regarding this topic whenever a student requests an accommodation.

Students are not automatically "entitled" to a specific testing accommodation. 

Whether or not an accommodation must be made depends on a number of factors.

Two of the main factors considered by the courts are:

1. "Fundamental alteration."  Does the requested accommodation fundamentally alter the nature of the testing?  If so, the instructor is not required to make the modification.  (See section III-4.2100, pasted below for your convenience). 

If you'll read Section III-4.6100 of the ADA Title III Technical Assistance Manual, you'll see that it states:  "A private entity offering an examination covered by this section is responsible for selecting and administering the examination in a place and manner that ensures that the examination accurately reflects an individual's aptitude or achievement level or other factor the examination purports to measure, rather than reflecting the individual's impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills (except where those skills are the factors that the examination purports to measure)."

Notice the bolded information in parenthetical expression?  A student may not ask to be excepted from the aptitude or skill that the test is designed to measure.  Deaf people sign and fingerspell at a certain pace. A "receptive ASL fluency" test is designed to determine if a student can recognize and process the meaning of a series of signs at a certain pace.  To slow that pace down (i.e., provide time and a half for a student to "figure out" what a sentence means)--would fundamentally alter the nature of the test.

2.  "Undue burden."  Does the requested accommodation cause an undue burden? An instructor is not required to provide auxiliary aids and services if an undue burden or a
fundamental alteration would result. (See section III-4.3100, pasted below for your convenience).  One student requiring an instructor devote after-class time to administer a single one-on-one performance tests at one-and-a-half extended time would not necessarily present an undue burden. However, multiple tests (not just one) would eventually add up to a substantial impact on the instructors time (possibly adding as much as 20 or 30 percent more effort added to his/her semester load since each test would require his/her undivided attention to administer.  It would be different if we were discussing written tests that the student could take at a writing center, and that could be possibly be corrected by a computer.  The tests we are referring to however are receptive and/or expressive ASL. Such tests (if not given via video) would require 100 percent of the instructors attention and time throughout the duration of the testing. 

III-4.2100 General. A public accommodation must reasonably modify its policies, practices, or procedures to avoid discrimination. If the public accommodation can demonstrate, however, that a modification would fundamentally alter the nature of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations it provides, it is not required to make the modification.

III-4.3100 General. A public accommodation is required to provide auxiliary aids and services that are necessary to ensure equal access to the goods, services, facilities, privileges, or accommodations that it offers, unless an undue burden or a fundamental alteration would result.

Here is a sample illustration paraphrased from the technical guide, "Suppose Steve who is blind, visits an electronics store to purchase a clock radio and wishes to inspect the merchandise information cards next to the floor models in order to decide which one to buy. Reading the model information to Steve should be adequate to ensure effective communication. If Steve is unreasonably demanding or is shopping when the store is extremely busy, it may be an undue burden to spend extended periods of time reading price and product information."

Of the items above it is the fundamental alteration item that applies most to ASL testing.
A student is NOT entitled to an accommodation that results in the fundamental alteration of a main factor in a test of speaking skills. (Such as "speed" which is an integral aspect of fluency testing.) This is very clear in the ADA guidelines.  To ask for "more processing time" on a test of speaking or listening fluency fundamentally alters that test.

Instead, the defensible accommodation is to allow a student to use a Deaf Culture or similar class to satisfy the "Foreign Language" requirement at a college or university.


A representative from a college center for students with disabilities writes:

Good Afternoon Professor Vicars,
I have a student enrolled in your "ASL 2" course. She has requested to write down the letters as you fingerspell during a test. She said that she asked you about it and you said she had to get an accommodation letter if she was going to be allowed to do this. Before I do the accommodation letter I want to make sure that this accommodation would not fundamentally alter your course requirements. I am not sure if one of the goals of the course is for your students to be able to interpret your finger spelling and answer in a timely manner to demonstrate that they could hold a reasonably flowing conversation? If this is a goal would her having the ability to write down the letters during the test alter your course requirements?

On the other hand, if this is not the goal and her writing down the letters while you finger spell during a test would not fundamentally alter your class then I will go ahead and revise her accommodation letter to allow her to do this.

Thank you for your time and if you have any questions or concerns please feel free to contact me.

Have a wonderful day,

Molly Smith (name changed), M.S.
Learning Disabilities Specialist


Hello :)
I give three kinds of tests in this semester's "American Sign Language 2" course:

Receptive: I sign and the students write.
Expressive: The students sign and I make notes.
Culture: Matching and/or multiple choice.

It seems the student is requesting to be able to write down the letters of fingerspelled words that I spell as part of the "receptive" testing that I do in class. Thus she is "requesting" something that is actually "required" as part of the test. YES by all means she can, (and should / must) write down the letters so that I can see if she understood the letters that were in the fingerspelled word.

Now, if the student is requesting that I slow down or hold each letter of a fingerspelled word steady in the air until she has written it onto her paper prior to my moving on to the next letter of the fingerspelled word, I must say that would indeed change the fundamental nature of the class in general and the test in specific -- since one of the things the test is designed to discover is whether or not the student can understand signing in a timely manner (so as to be prepared to move on to the next level course and so forth until being able to have gained the ability to actually communicate with individuals who are Deaf). If this cannot be accomplished by the student due to a disability then the "proper" accommodation for the student may be to give her a letter waiving the "Foreign Language" requirement and/or allow her to use a course such as the Deaf Culture course or some sort of "Ethnic Studies" course to satisfy the requirement.

One of the ways I test fingerspelling is to use this website:
That is a website I built to help people practice understanding fingerspelling.
I also use it as part of some of my tests.

The benefit is that it is "very" consistent in speed and thus "extremely fair."
A rough guideline is that an ASL 2 should be able to catch 7 out of 10 words on the first try at medium speed (for a C), 8 for a B, and 9 for an A-, and 10 out of 10 for an "A." (Meaning: An "A" student near the end of ASL 2 will generally catch all or almost all of the fingerspelling at medium speed (at a six letter maximum length).
Additionally, I'd like to note that isolated fingerspelling is at most "3 questions" out of 25 questions (or out of 30 questions) on my exams. Thus the percentage of occurrence of fingerspelling in my tests is very reasonable. Occasionally some of the sentences I sign have fingerspelling in them but those occurrences are of typical and regular items such as the term "ASL" or "SAC" (for Sacramento) -- which students are expected to be familiar with since they show up so frequently (in our area).

So, you may wish to explain to the student that she is welcome to write each letter off to the side (as I spell) and then look down and piece the letters together into a word and write that word on the answer line. (No accommodation letter needed.)

In general though, no, an accommodation letter could not be used to try to force me to slow down my spelling during testing. (Forgive my use of the term "force." I know that is not what is going on here.) I know we are all simply trying to make sure that what is best for the student and society actually happens. The long view is we are also trying to protect the student from wasting years of her life studying sign language in the hopes of becoming an interpreter and then finding out upon graduation that nobody wants to hire an interpreter who has to write down fingerspelled words in order to figure out what is being signed.

If she is simply trying to fulfill the Foreign Language requirement by taking ASL 2, then our main concern should be to assure her that if she is within a few percentage points of passing with the necessary C-, (and has put forth a solid effort at attendance and homework) and it is determined that the "fingerspelling" issue was the straw that "broke the camel's back" (and that her disability precludes her from doing well on receptive fingerspelling) then CERTAINLY we can revisit her grades and substitute some equivalent but different measure of competence and grant her the C- so she can be on her way toward graduation (along with clear and direct academic advising to the effect that continuing upward to "ASL 3" is not advised since it too will involve fingerspelling -- and at an even faster pace).

Thank you "Molly" for all that you do on behalf of our students.
Dr. V




Also see: Time-and-a-half


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