Some of my students get extended deadlines on assignments due to a disability. They are not required to tell me the nature of their disability (which may be physical, intellectual, or psychological), but some choose to do so. (United States faculty are legally required to grant accommodations to such students, who are certified by a college office that knows the details of their situation.)

My question is what to say when a student asks for a recommendation for an industry position (typically as a software engineer). I legally cannot reveal that they have a disability, but their ability to complete assignments correctly and on time is relevant to their qualifications for a job.


To clarify, I don't consider it relevant to an employer if a student uses assistive technology or if the student takes extra time on exams, since the latter is an artificial situation irrelevant outside of school. (All of the exams I give are untimed anyway.) My concern is about students who are unable to complete assignments in the normal amount of time, which is always at least a week, even given any needed accommodations. The ability to complete work at the normal rate seems like it might be a bona fide occupational qualification. Of course, it is not the employer's business whether the need for extra time is due to a disability.


You were already required to evaluate this student's work under the assumption that they performed under the same circumstances as everyone else, so why suddenly stop doing so at a recommendation letter?

That said, this quickly becomes a legal matter, and we have few true legal experts (for any jurisdiction) on this site. I'm certainly not one of them, but here's my opinion and understanding...

The companies are not allowed to discriminate based on disabilities, and are required to make "reasonable accommodations" for them. As such you can reasonably assume that whatever job is being applied for will already have this in effect, and that the disability is therefore irrelevant.

If, for some reason, the student is hiding their disability from potential employers—or, worse, had been faking it with the University—, then that is their responsibility, and the responsibilities of whatever (medical) professionals were involved in the evaluation, not yours.

If you remain in doubt—it would not be unreasonable to be confused on whether certain things you know about the student fall under "protected disability concerns" versus "legitimate, non-protected concerns"—, contact the very office that handles these disability arrangements, and possibly arrange to have a meeting where you can discuss these matters at length. They should be able to provide you with guidance on how to faithfully execute your duties vis a vis recommendations while remaining in compliance. You can even contact a lawyer for yourself, though you will likely have to pay for this. The disabilities office will be inclined to advise you to act in whatever is most convenient for them and the university, which may be more strict than is legally required and enforceable, but in a case like this I would suggest you follow that because of:

The golden rule of writing a recommendation letter is: if you feel you cannot write a good recommendation letter for the student then reject their request to write one, and if you feel you cannot write a strong one then tell them so, so that they can decide if that is acceptable or not.

If you feel that these will automatically apply to you with respect to students with disabilities, you may want to (preemptively) arrange to speak with someone in the disabilities office, or a personal lawyer (this may be more strongly advisable in this situation), about writing letters for students with disabilities. This would be to head off any potential concerns about you acting discriminatingly towards such students.

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  • +1: Exactly. It is an institutional policy how to deal with that, not your decision. Generally, if extra time is allocated to them, then, if they perform as well in these circumstances/with these adjustments as non-disabled student in the regular time frame, that's the reference they should receive (modulo any adjustments that the disability office may or may not suggest to you). – Captain Emacs Nov 27 '16 at 22:16
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    Of course I decline to write letters that would be negative, although most honest letters (or informal recommendations) are a mix of positives and negatives. – Ellen Spertus Nov 27 '16 at 23:41

Extra time used by virtue of a 504 plan is not relevant to, and should not be mentioned, in a letter of recommendation.

I checked http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/504faq.html and found a couple of relevant bits:

Equal access: equal opportunity of a qualified person with a disability to participate in or benefit from educational aid, benefits, or services.

Reasonable accommodation: a term used in the employment context to refer to modifications or adjustments employers make to a job application process, the work environment, the manner or circumstances under which the position held or desired is customarily performed, or that enable a covered entity's employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.

If you're still not sure, you could contact your OCR regional office (http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/addresses.html, or email ocr@ed.gov) or your university's office for students with disabilities.

Side note:

"Of course I decline to write letters that would be negative, although most honest letters (or informal recommendations) are a mix of positives and negatives."

This concerns me. I believe that if you have accepted the request to write a recommendation, it is up to you to use omissions to convey any weaknesses the student might have. The letter of recommendation is not the place to point out what is often euphemistically called "areas of growth."

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  • Thank you for finding a relevant government page, although you don't address that being able to complete an assignment in the usual amount of time might be a bona fide occupational qualification, for which discrimination is legal (i.e., I can legally be denied a job as a sperm donor, being unable to produce sperm). definitions.uslegal.com/b/bona-fide-occupational-qualification – Ellen Spertus Nov 28 '16 at 1:02
  • @espertus - For these fine points I suggest you talk to OCR or the office for students with disabilities. I will add a link to my answer. – aparente001 Nov 28 '16 at 1:06
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    @espertus There is no way that you can tell exactly what an industrial employer wants from a particular applicant. That is for the employer's selection process to sort out. In a medium to large company, there is likely to be a very wide range of "time criticality" between different positions with the generic job title of "software engineer" - from "Of course I want it yesterday - if I wanted it today I would ask you tomorrow" to long term strategic tasks with timescales of months or years, not minutes. – alephzero Nov 28 '16 at 4:52

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