By Katherine Macfarlane and Irina Manta
Since fall 2021, when most colleges and universities reopened their campuses to in-person activities, it has become increasingly difficult for faculty and students with disabilities to obtain reasonable accommodations to teach or attend class remotely. Remote accommodations were granted freely during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, but in 2021, the in-person aspect of teaching and learning was suddenly deemed essential, and at many institutions, remote classes came to an end. Despite federal disability law’s requirement that each reasonable accommodation request be assessed individually, faculty and students alike were met with bright-line policies that remote teaching and learning were out of the question.
The language and logic used to deny these accommodations at universities across the country was suspiciously similar. We wondered to ourselves whether a memo had been circulated instructing universities about which magic words to employ to deny each accommodation request. But no matter what words are used, across-the-board policies that do not contemplate accommodation-based exceptions and fail to assess accommodation requests on an individual basis do not comply with federal disability law. A recent federal case brought by a high-risk professor against his university employer has recognized these well-settled principles and highlighted the problem with formulaic denials.