The Use and Purposes of Documentation

Laws that protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination and mandate the availability of accommodations to ameliorate the impact of the disability are in place in most countries. In order to determine whether an individual is entitled to these protections, post-secondary institutions typically require objective evidence (documentation) that verifies that the individual’s condition fits the locally (and for that local, legally) accepted definition of “disability.”

Documentation serves two primary purposes in postsecondary education:

  • To establish protection from discrimination:

    Non-discrimination is an assurance that individuals with disabilities will not be excluded or provided lesser access to programs and activities based on assumptions rooted in stereotype or perception of ability that are not based in fact. Non-discrimination also provides freedom from harassment based on perceptions of disability.

    Documentation needed only for protection from discrimination based on disability can be quite brief. A diagnostic statement from an appropriate professional, a past history of recognition as a person with a disability or even self-identification that indicates how others might regard the individual as having a disability could suffice as the basis for protection from discrimination.


  • To determine the accommodations to which the individual may be entitled

    Reasonable accommodations include modifications to policy, procedure or practice and the provision of auxiliary aids and services that are designed to provide equal access to programs and services for qualified individuals with disabilities. Accommodations are reasonable when they do not fundamentally alter the nature of a program or service and do not represent an undue financial or administrative burden.

    Disability documentation for the purpose of providing accommodations must both establish disability and provide adequate information on the functional impact of the disability so that effective accommodations can be identified. In the context of postsecondary education, documentation should provide a decision-maker with a basic understanding of the individual’s disability and enough information to anticipate how the current impact of the disability is expected to interact with the institution’s structure of courses, testing methods, program requirements, etc.

Definitions of Disability

Definitions of disability differ widely both between countries and across contexts within individual countries. A cluster of widely accepted international definitions have evolved. First published in 1980, the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) is widely accepted for research and policy development and often used at an institutional level to verify status as a person with a disability. The ICF identifies three levels of human functioning: the body (or body part), the whole person, and the whole person in a social context. Disability is defined as dysfunctioning at one or more of these same levels: impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions.

Established by the U.N. in 1982 to support the full and effective participation of persons with disabilities in social life, promote equal access to employment, education, information, goods and services; and protect the dignity of persons with disabilities, The World Program of Action for Disabled Persons emphasizes that disability is socially created and not simply an attribute of the individual. Disability results from a dynamic interaction between health conditions and other personal factors (such as age, sex, personality or level of education) on the one hand, and social and physical environmental factors on the other hand.

Building on this definition, the Working Group drafting the U.N. Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities developed the following definition:
“Disability: the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical, social, attitudinal and cultural barriers encountered by persons having physical, sensory, psychological, developmental, learning, neurological or other impairments (including the presence in the body of an organism or agent causing malfunction or disease), which may be permanent, temporary, episodic or transitory in nature.”

Elements of these international definitions can be seen in the laws and customs of individual countries and lead the service provider to the types of information necessary to evaluate the presence of a disability and understand its impact in context. Examples:

  • The United States’ Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines “disability” as “having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities.” The ADA protects individuals from discrimination if they have a record of such impairments or if they are regarded as having such impairments. Additionally, specific protections are guaranteed through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (amended, 1978).
  • The Canadian Charter of Human Rights recognizes medically certified conditions and injury as disabling factors and includes them as prohibited grounds of discrimination. While the only legislation that explicitly defines disability is the Employment Equity Act, Canadian laws are designed to protect persons with both mental and physical disabilities against discrimination and to ensure accessibility to persons with disabilities.
  • In the United Kingdom, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) defines a disabled person as someone with "a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities." Protection from discrimination, the right to reasonable accommodations and the obligation to make permanent physical adjustments to premises are all components of the DDA.