The Catholic University of America


How do I define what are the essential functions or requirements of the program?


 The basic principle is that the student could be excluded if he/she can't perform the essential functions and/or meet the essential requirements of the program -- and particularly if he/she can't perform them safely. 


It isn't up to one particular faculty member to decide what those requirements are.  Rather, at least according to a number of OCR letters, this decision-making process should include at least the following elements:


  1. The decision is made by a group of people who are trained, knowledgeable and experienced in the area;
  2. The decision-makers consider a series of alternatives as essential requirements; and
  3. The decision should be a careful, thoughtful and rational review of the academic program and its requirements.  
  4. The process should include consideration of the nature and purpose of the program, whether the standard is required in similar programs in other institutions,  whether the standard is essential to a given vocation or occupation for which the program is preparing students, and whether the standard is required for licensure or certification in a related occupation or profession.


Once the requirements are established, the program must consider whether each particular applicant or student with a disability can meet them, with or without accommodations (and accommodations don't have to be provided if they would be a fundamental alteration of the requirement or program). 


For example, if a student says he/she can not perform fine motor tasks due to a disability, then one must determine if those tasks are an essential function or requirement in order to participate in the program, as determined through the process described above?  Or is it the sort of thing that others can do for the student or help he/she do without fundamentally altering the nature of the program?  Can he/she perform the other tasks that are essential to the program? It is also important to look at safety. Has the student been observed having difficulty performing the tasks safely? 


Similarly, if the concern is about whether or not the student can perform certain tasks safely, the program must have sufficiently specific information about the individual student on which to base the decision.  OCR would say that the university must determine that the student poses a significant risk to the health or safety of the student (or others).  “Significant” should be defined as a high probability of substantial harm and not simply an increased, speculative or remote risk.  A determination as to the student’s ability to safely participate must be individualized and objective, and it must be based on reasonable and current medical knowledge and the best available medical evidence. 


The assessment must take into account the nature, duration and severity of the risk; the probability that the potentially threatening injury will actually occur; and whether reasonable modifications of policies, practices or procedures will sufficiently mitigate the risk.  Moreover, the student must be afforded due process to ensure that the decision was not motivated by unfounded fear, prejudice or stereotypes,  i.e., procedural safeguards such as notice, opportunity for hearing and appeal that are comparable to those applied to students without disabilities.


The basic principle is that the decision be based on objective information and not on assumptions.  DSS is available to assist with this process and to help answer any questions about the disability.