What are some confidentiality issues I should be aware of when working with students with disabilities?

A key tenet in disability services is confidentiality.  All information shared by a student with the Student Office for Accessibility Resources (SOAR) team is held in strict confidence. This information can include the original request for services, documentation submitted for review, conversations between students and SOAR personnel, and arrangements for SOAR-provided accommodations like test proctoring. Except for emergency reasons, information is exchanged only as necessary in providing services or with those with specific offices and/or individuals for which the student has provided written permission.  SOAR may, at times, communicate with on-campus offices or individuals without written permission, given there is a clear educational need.

But what should professors know about maintaining confidentiality, while working with a student with a disability?

Students sharing their disability: Students are advised during intake appointments that sharing their diagnosis with professors is within their discretion.  It is not required by law.  Many students who are comfortable with this information do share it with faculty as a way to explain the need for the approved accommodations. However, students are not required to disclose their diagnoses unless they are comfortable doing so.  Once they share information about themselves, whether it is detail about their condition or just the fact that they have accommodations, it is ok to talk openly with students about their academic needs and how their disability might impact them in your class. This isn’t who you need to be restrictive with; restrict information from others who don’t have a need to know.

Receiving and storing accommodation letters: Accommodation letters will be mailed to professors at the start of the term. If a student tells you they have accommodations, but you have not received a letter, please contact SOAR.  Professors should store accommodation letters for the duration of the semester or until the students have completed the class.  After that time professors should shred/delete letters to maintain confidentiality.

Talking about students to others: In rare cases, another student may ask a faculty member for information on other students in the class with disabilities (i.e., laptop usage, absent members on test days, inquiries about student experiences with disabilities). In these instances, faculty members should never comment on individual student accommodations or identify students who have received accommodations in their classes.  If you need to discuss a situation with a colleague or superior regarding your student and their disability status is important, start by leaving their name out.  If it you determine that it is necessary to include, then you have determined that the colleague or superior has a “need to know” and that is acceptable.

Recognizing signs of a possible disability: Faculty members often are the first to notice signs of difficulty in class that may be related to undiagnosed learning disabilities or attention disorders, or even psychological conditions like depression or anxiety. In these instances, faculty can guide students whose performance is troublesome to SOAR to discuss testing, or Counseling Services for personal counseling.  You can do this through a private conversation related to class performance.

Things not to do: Students have shared bad experiences where their confidentiality was breached, so we share these so professors don’t inadvertently repeat these unfortunate incidents.

  • Don’t put students in the hallway or public space to take a test with extended time.
  • Don’t share the names of students who use accommodations with others, hoping they can help each other.  Always get permission before sharing any student’s name with another student.
  • Don’t tell your class to turn in their tests but tell Johnny on the front row to keep working since he has extra time.
  • Don’t restrict use of laptops to “only students with disabilities”. This can immediately “out” the student with a disability who has your permission because of a disability.  See our FAQ on restricting laptops while respecting the privacy of students with disabilities who need to use a laptop for an accommodation.

This information was adapted from SMU DASS website.