Test anxiety and the ADA
Edward A. Martinelli, Ph.D.
Director, Learning Disabilities Testing
Many students at college experience anxiety when they have tests. Sometimes it can become quite intense. Nevertheless, whether it meets the standard for accommodations under the ADA is something that’s been a subject of discussion for many years. One the one hand, it can be pretty impactful to the student. On the other hand, ADA typically looks at a disability as impacting a “major life activity.” These are things like processing, learning, breathing, eating, walking, etc.
It’s important to point out that there’s a substantial difference in the eyes of psychologists and disability professionals between generalized anxiety (something that regularly has an impact on lots of functioning and lots of areas throughout life and your day) and something that seems to emerge only when you are taking a test. Taking tests is not often seen as a “major life activity.” (Although it sure feels like it when you are a student!)
When an individual goes to a disability or accessibility office at a college, documentation is often very helpful and having something outlining the impacts, and potential diagnosis, from a licensed professional is often what they are looking for. It is often important to consider if the anxiety, tension, and even panic that one experiences with tests also shows up in other settings and situations. If so, that could look more like something that does fit the criteria of a disability. If not, it may be more helpful to work with a therapist or other professional about ways to manage those symptoms when they emerge in situations like a test or presentation.
Additionally, the accommodations that go with anxiety-related disorders often include more time on a timed test, a quiet place to take the exam, and maybe some other comforting or calming influence. They typically do not include long extensions on deadlines, the removal of the assignment, or the consideration of things that would “fundamentally alter” the nature of the assignment or test.