Receiving Sleep Disorder Accommodations in School: 2022 Disability Pride Month

July is Disability Pride Month! Project Sleep is proud to share information that may help those living with sleep disorders during the month of July.

Can students with sleep disorders receive disability accommodations in school?

Pursuing an education while living with a sleep disorder takes strength and perseverance. Managing symptoms, medications, side effects, and additional complications can seriously impact one’s academic career. There’s no shame in seeking academic accommodations to help mitigate these challenges, as students with sleep disorders have the right to an equitable education. So, how can schools and families work together to ensure opportunities for success?

 

I didn’t have a choice about taking accommodations at first because I was so young when I was diagnosed. As I got older, they turned out to be very helpful and I was very appreciative.

— Kenya

Does a Sleep Disorder Qualify as a Disability?

Determining who qualifies as a student with a disability is an individualized evaluation made on a case-by-case basis. A sleep disorder diagnosis does not, by itself, qualify any individual as “disabled” under the law. This evaluation is always an individualized process that considers the student’s unique circumstances.

Federal law defines an individual with a disability as “any person who has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” Major life activities include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. In 2008, new activities were added: eating, sleeping, standing, lifting, bending, reading, concentrating, thinking, and communicating.

While a sleep disorder affects many aspects of life, the inclusion of sleeping as a major life activity is helpful for students with sleep disorders to gain a favorable determination toward receiving accommodations. 

Accommodations Process

At the elementary and secondary school level, the process to determine if a child qualifies as disabled begins with an evaluation conducted by the school’s Section 504 committee. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires public school districts and other institutions of higher education receiving Federal Financial Assistance to provide a “free appropriate public education” to each qualified student with a disability. Anyone can refer a child for consideration for evaluation, including a doctor, parent, teacher, or school nurse.

Schools must consider a variety of sources of information when conducting this evaluation. A single source of information, like a doctor’s letter, cannot be the only information considered. The committee will look at grades over the past few years, teachers’ reports, information from parents and medical providers, standardized test scores, discipline reports, and attendance records. No formalized testing is required.

School administrators and teachers then use the information gathered during evaluation to decide whether a student qualifies as disabled. If a student is determined to have a disability, the committee will assess the student’s educational needs and develop a plan for accommodations (often known as a 504 plan).

 

Parents, please make copies of everything. Start the folder for the journey.

— Ricky

Accommodations Examples

These are just a few types of accommodations that may be helpful for a student with a sleep disorder. What works best may be a creative combination of some of these ideas.

  • Test timing coordinated with wakefulness
  • Limited hours of testing per day
  • Note-taking support or “smart pen”
  • Seating assignment and ability to stand
  • Class scheduling and priority registration
  • Extended time for homework and final papers
  • Excused absences
  • A place and time to nap

A key tip to asking for accommodations are to know what accommodations you want before starting the process with your school. Think about what you would need on your worst days.

 

When I’m writing down which accommodations I’m going to ask for, I have to think back to my worst days. They’re not fun to think about, but when they happen you want to be prepared. Even if you only need them once or twice throughout the year, it’s best to have accommodations as a safety net.

— Danielle

High School V. College V. Graduate School

At the start of high school, it’s important to start thinking about accommodations for standardized tests like the ACT, SAT, and AP exams. It’s a good idea to begin this process early. Having accommodations at school will not guarantee accommodations for all standardized tests, but it can be helpful. Providing diagnosis documentation, explaining how your sleep disorder affects you, and asking for specific accommodations are key. There are different requirements for each exam, so check the ACT and College Board (SAT) websites for detailed information.

At college, students may find more expanded options and accommodations such as:

  • Greater scheduling flexibility
  • Classes that stimulate personal interests and fit various learning styles
  • Classes with final exams versus final papers
  • A wide variety of clubs and interest groups
  • Alternative housing accommodations
  • Greater diversity and opportunities to find community

 

In law school I was able to get priority registration. This helped me get into some of the more engaging, conversational classes as opposed to lectures.

— Julie

The Bottom Line

It can be an uphill battle to gain accommodations, but perseverance and communication are key. Learning about legal protections, the accommodations process, and how accommodations work at different educational levels will empower students, parents, educators, and doctors to work together. Making adjustments for a sleep disorder means you’re being smart and strategic; working with your sleep disorder to live your most successful life.

For more information on receiving accommodations in school, download our toolkit on Navigating School with Narcolepsy. Please share this resource with students, parents, school administrators, and health care providers!

Important: Qualifying as having a disability in one area of the law is not a blanket determination applicable to all other areas of the law. This post speaks to U.S. legal protections in the areas of educational accommodations at public schools and many other institutes of higher education that receive federal financial assistance. Other areas of legal protection may consider different factors and reach different conclusions. Please note that this information is shared for educational purposes. Project Sleep cannot provide legal advice.

For more educational information on disability accommodations in the workplace, email us for access to a textbook chapter on this topic written by Julie Flygare, J.D. For more on social security disability, please see Hypersomnia Foundation’s “Social Security Disability Series.

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