Several years ago, I was a professor of Special Education at a small private university in Western Pennsylvania. Before the start of the fall semester, I received an email from a student who was enrolled in my course, Introduction to the Teaching Profession. In his email, the student provided some background information about his hometown, activities, and professional goals. He then disclosed and discussed the effects that his autism may have on his experience in my course—and how accommodations would benefit him.
After our first class session, this student formally introduced himself. I was already aware of his journey and understood his unique needs. The power of this simple email has stayed with me; I now work as a director of disability services in higher education, and I encourage the students with whom I work to follow this student’s example, sending introductory emails to their instructors.
The Importance of Student Self-Advocacy in the Transition to College
When students with disabilities transition to a postsecondary setting, their ability to self-advocate and communicate their needs plays a pivotal role in their success. While it is not mandated (and may not even be encouraged at some institutions), discussing their specific disabilities and needs for reasonable accommodations can be invaluable.
At the postsecondary level, professors typically receive a letter of accommodation from the campus disability support office before the start of a new term. This letter simply lists students’ names, along with the accommodations that administrators have approved for them. To protect privacy, professors aren’t always provided with the “why” behind these accommodations—but when they do have access to that information and can connect students’ disabilities or functional limitations to the need for accommodation, they are more likely to remember and ensure that those accommodations are provided.
From a student perspective, initiating this type of conversation can be uncomfortable. An introductory email at the beginning of a semester can bridge the information gap and reduce the awkwardness of that initial conversation between student and professor.
Writing a Disability Disclosure Email to an Educator
Students can craft this initial disclosure email with the help of high school teachers, prior to graduation, and it can be a critical element of a student’s transition plan. Once it’s written, students can carry it with them across time, using it for every class throughout their college career. The following structure presents a framework comprising a summary of key elements that I’ve noticed are most beneficial, based on my experience with students:
Introduction. Students should take the time to introduce themselves to their professor. They might include information about their hometown, sports and activities they are involved in, their major, professional aspirations, etc. This opening paragraph allows the student to add a personal touch to their email, building relationship and rapport with their professor, who gets to know them on a more personal level.
Statement of Disability. In this section, students can transition to a statement about their disability. Being self-aware of their specific disability may be something that requires some direct instruction from a teacher or parent/guardian, depending on how involved the student has been in their educational processes. In addition to a statement of disability—maybe even more important than the statement, in fact—the student should articulate how their disability may affect their performance (academically, socially, etc.) in the professor’s class. This is a very personal aspect of the introductory email, as disabilities affect various students in different ways. Here, professors get a clearer understanding of the student’s unique needs and challenges as related to their teaching and learning context.
Summary of Accommodations. Next, the student should summarize the list of reasonable accommodations that the administration has approved for the upcoming semester. Making this connection is critical in the professor’s understanding of the “why” behind the accommodations that they are asked to provide in their classroom. When professors see the interconnection between a student’s disability, its effect on their functional performance, and the relevance and impact of proposed accommodation, they are much more likely to ensure that they provide those scaffolds—and prioritize a quality educational experience for the student.
Closing. In the final paragraph of their email, the student should thank the professor for taking the time to read their letter—appreciation can go a long way in building a positive connection. Next, the student can suggest follow-up conversations or create a plan of communication that will allow them to address any questions the professor may have. This letter, in other words, becomes the start of a dialogue that can span the semester.
When I was teaching college students, I remember having learners in my classes who made no attempt to discuss their accommodations with me. These students sometimes got lost in the shuffle. And, in contrast, the students who made the attempt to initiate communication were always in the forefront in my mind.
Creating an introductory email, like that above, as a part of a student’s postsecondary education transition plan offers students an effective tool in their college tool belt. While it’s not mandated by law, when professors understand the student’s disability, functional limitations, and need for accommodations, they’re better positioned to boost the student’s chances for equal access to educational opportunities—and an overall improved educational experience beyond high school.