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Mind, Body and Sport: Education-impacting disabilities and the NCAA waiver process

An excerpt from the Sport Science Institute’s guide to understanding and supporting student-athlete mental wellness

By Marcia Ridpath

The population of students with disabilities is growing in the postsecondary setting. One of the reports provided by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicates that students with disabilities represented nearly 11 percent of all postsecondary students in 2008. This upward trend is reflected in the world of athletics as well.

In the NCAA waiver process, we have seen a steady increase in the number of student-athletes with disabilities, particularly those with diagnosed or suspected mental health disorders.

Athletic trainers often have a unique perspective because they work closely with student-athletes and can be one of the first to identify signs of a potential mental health impairment. When a student-athlete arrives on campus, he or she may not have a formally identified mental health concern; however, we often see difficulties develop as the student-athlete transitions to the collegiate environment.

Many student-athletes struggle both in and out of the classroom and find themselves in need of an academic waiver to establish or repair their athletics eligibility. Athletic trainers and other athletics department staff can often provide insightful documentation when an institution chooses to file a waiver on behalf of a student-athlete.

It is important that colleges and universities are aware of the NCAA’s definition of disability. We use the term “education-impacting disability” (EID) in Divisions I, II and III, in all types of waivers, and in related policy/procedures tied to disability. The definition is as follows:

“For academic eligibility purposes, the NCAA defines a disability as a current impairment that has a substantial educational impact on a student’s academic performance and requires accommodation.”

Following is a list of the various types of disabilities that typically surface in the waiver process. Learning disabilities/disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders and mental health disorders are the most prevalent impairments. Documentation often indicates that students present with more than one identified disorder.

  • Learning disabilities/disorders (LD)
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Mental health disorders
  • Medical conditions
  • Hearing impairment
  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)

Athletics department personnel are in a key position to observe the challenges and behaviors present in the lives of student-athletes, often on a daily basis. This is particularly true for those student-athletes with suspected or formally diagnosed mental health disorders. Because “mental health disorder” is such a broad category, it helps to see a list of the most frequent impairments cited under this umbrella in the waiver process. Common disorders include:

  • Major depressive disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder/social phobia
  • Adjustment disorder
  • Obsessive/compulsive disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Addictions
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Bipolar disorder

It is also important to note that not every individual with a diagnosed condition (including mental health disorders) is considered “disabled” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (as amended). The ADAAA is a civil rights law with the goal “to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination of individuals with disabilities.”

The ADAAA provides the following definition to help identify individuals who are protected by this law:

“The term ‘disability’ means, with respect to an individual, a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment. Major life activities include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and working. Major life activities also include the operation of a major bodily function, including functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.”

When an NCAA member institution submits a waiver under the EID category, we review the documentation to see if the individual has self-identified as someone with an impairment under the ADAAA. This usually occurs when the student voluntarily chooses to disclose his or her documentation to the disability office on campus.

The disability office verifies the impairment and determines reasonable accommodations or academic adjustments specific to that student in order to “level the playing field and remove barriers.”

It is important to note that a diagnosis does not automatically result in certain accommodations and services. It is the role of the disability office on campus to work individually with each student to “identify the limits caused by the disability and determine … which accommodation(s) will be appropriate and reasonable.”

The EID waiver process also includes an in-depth review of the documentation to note the date of initial onset of the disorder(s), the duration and severity of the disorder(s) and the potential educational impact (including identifying the major life activities that are substantially limited). In addition, most waivers require a written statement from the student-athlete that addresses the disability(s) and the impact he or she has encountered in the academic setting.

Whether the student chooses to disclose his or her impairment is often a key component to examine in the EID waiver process. The decision and responsibility to disclose belongs to the individual with a disability. Because concern about discrimination is so prevalent, some students decide not to disclose, even though they often forfeit needed services and accommodations.  

The October 2009 GAO report makes the following comment about students and disclosure in the postsecondary environment:

“A related challenge for schools is providing services to students with disabilities who did not initially disclose their need for accommodations. Some students choose not to disclose their disability, even when they are aware of available services, according to school officials and disability experts. While a student is not obligated to inform a school that he or she has a disability, in order for the school to provide an academic adjustment or another disability-related service, the student must identify himself or herself as having a disability. Any initial nondisclosure may become problematic for schools when students disclose and request accommodations after they fall behind academically. For example, a school may find it difficult to provide timely accommodations to a student who disclosed a visual or learning disability in the middle of a semester because of the time required to convert textbooks into electronic format. School and disability group officials told us that some students choose not to register with the disability services office and request accommodations for a variety of reasons. For example, they said some students, especially those with ‘hidden’ disabilities, such as learning disabilities, are reluctant to disclose because they want a fresh start in higher education without the label of having a disability.”

Disclosure is a critical but voluntary component in the EID waiver process. Many student-athletes find themselves in need of a waiver because they haven’t accessed the services available through the disability office. This scenario can be true for many types of waivers, such as student-athlete reinstatement, progress-toward-degree, legislative relief, and 2-4 transfers.  

For students with mental health disorders, fear of disclosure can be especially inhibiting and it is often an assertion in the waiver process. There are stigmas and perceptions related to mental illness that affect both the individual with the impairment and those around that individual. This is certainly true if the student has a first-time experience with a mental health issue after enrolling in a postsecondary institution.

The combination of unsettling symptoms and transition to the collegiate environment can result in isolating behaviors and diminished participation; student-athletes pull away from people who can provide much-needed support. In these circumstances, the athletic trainers or other athletics department staff who have regular contact with the student may have firsthand knowledge with important insight into the student-athlete’s difficulties and how his or her collegiate journey has been impacted.

Looking ahead poses a unique opportunity for athletics department staff. Departments have the important responsibility of educating their staff and developing best practices to address the specific needs of student-athletes with education-impacting disabilities. This is timely and critical because the complexity and combinations of disabilities (and specifically mental health disorders) has increased over the past several years. Many EID waivers provide documentation for students with significant personal, emotional and medical issues that impact academic progress.

Athletics department personnel are in a unique position to encourage their student-athletes with disabilities to seek all of the support and services available at the institution. Self-advocacy is a crucial skill for all students but it is especially important for student-athletes with EIDs.  

Many student-athletes need assistance in developing the ability to explain their disability and its educational impact and access their approved services and accommodations to maximize academic success. Athletic trainers and department staff can play an important role in the lives of student-athletes as they learn how to navigate the intersection between their disability and the world of college and athletics.

Marcia Ridpath is the president and founder of MAR Educational Consulting. For the past 15 years, she has served as a disability consultant to the NCAA. Before starting her consulting role in 1999, she taught high school classes as a special education teacher and served as the learning specialist for Oregon State University athletics. Rid path has more than 25 years of experience in education, working as a junior/senior high school principal, academic adviser, adjunct professor and accreditation coordinator. She is a national speaker, published author and a member of the Learning Disabilities Association of America and the Association on Higher Education and Disability. She is also affiliated with the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics.