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Accommodations for Students with Bipolar Disorder and Related Disabilities

Not all students who have disabilities require specialized instruction.  For students with disabilities who do require specialized instruction in the United States, the IDEA controls the procedural requirements and an IEP is developed.  "Special education" under IDEA means the child has been identified as having unique educational needs related to his/her disability and is entitled to an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to meet these needs. 

The IDEA process is more involved than that of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  The IDEA requires that measurable growth and progress towards written goals and objectives be documented. 

For students with disabilities who do not require specialized instruction but need the assurance that they will receive equal access to public education and services, a document is created to outline their specific accessibility requirements.  Section 504 is a federal civil rights law. The purpose of Section 504 is to protect persons with disabilities against discrimination for reasons related to their disabilities.

While students with a 504 plan do not require specialized instruction, and specific goals and objectives are not necessarily outlines nor is data tracked, the plan should be reviewed annually to ensure that the student is receiving the most effective accommodations for his/her specific circumstances.

Unlike IDEA, Section 504 does not guarantee that a child with a disability will receive an individualized educational program that is designed to meet the child's individual educational needs.  Rather, it guarantees that accommodations will be made relative to their specific medical needs.

Eligibility for protections under Section 504 depends on the child in question having a physical or mental impairment which must substantially limit at least one major life activity. Major life activities include walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, writing, performing math calculations, working, caring for oneself, and performing manual tasks. Section 504 requires an evaluation that draws information from a variety of sources.

A child who receives Section 504 protections has fewer rights than the child who receives special education services under the IDEA. The child who receives special education services under the IDEA is automatically protected under Section 504.

Section 504 is designed to guarantee that children with disabilities will not be discriminated against. It is also important to understand that if your child does not qualify for special education services under IDEA, your child does not have the procedural protections that are available under the IDEA.

Under Section 504, the child with a disability may receive accommodations and modifications that are not available to children who are not disabled. These accommodations and modifications are also available under IDEA. For example; accommodations could include, but not be limited to, such things as:

Tests taken in a separate location with time limits waived or extended.

The use of a word processor due to fine motor, visual motor deficits.

Shortened assignments.

Standardized tests answers written directly in the test booklet and transferred onto answer sheet by teacher or assistant.

Class notes provided rather than having the student copy from the chalkboard or overhead.

Allowing the child to leave the classroom 2 to 3 minutes early to avoid crowded hallways.

Preferential seating in the classroom.

Provision of a daily assignment sheet to be filled out by the student and verified by the teacher for accuracy. The parent could then check to make sure that all the work is accomplished. This would assist with homework prioritizing and management.

Please note: These are simply examples. All or none of these may be suitable for your child.

Students with bipolar disorder may or may not have a need for specialized instruction provided within an IEP.  For some students, simply being granted accommodations that make allowance for the side effects of medications, related anxiety issues, or results of mood changes is sufficient. 

Students with bipolar disorder who are well-controlled on medication may or may not be plagued by racing thoughts, distracting thoughts, an inability to concentrate, decreased energy; all of which will require modifications in the teaching environment or instructional strategies. 

For other students, the side effects of medications may be significant enough to require changes in instruction provided or curriculum modifications.  Some of the common side effects of medications include: tremors (trembling of hands), blurred vision, loss of coordination, slurred speech, sedation, ataxia (unsteady movement), dizziness, seizures.  Some students with bipolar disorder may also have one of a number of other disabilities that impacts their access to the general education curriculum; such as vision or hearing impairment, learning disability, processing problems, or other disability.  The co-morbidity rates of ADHD, anxiety disorder, conduct disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder and learning disabilities in students with bipolar disorder tell us that we should explore all avenues available to meet the educational needs of our children.

The following accommodations are meant to serve as a resource for parents unsure of what possibilities exist:

Students on some medications may need:

  • increased access to water, unlimited access to restrooms (particularly students taking Lithium)
  • decreased reading assignments or having books on tape or computer screen-reading due to blurred vision
  • modified school arrival, shortened day, scheduling of core content during the student’s most alert time, reducing homework and extending deadlines, providing notes, allowing longer or more frequent breaks, allowing exercise or other movement due to sleep impairment or to sedation of medications
  • provision of notes and listening guides, work monitoring, extended time on assignments, extra set of books for home use, breaking assignments into more manageable pieces, use of checklists, providing written instructions and/or other visual cues, use of word banks on fill-in types of tests and other modifications that aid retrieval/memory, testing in a separate room, or extended test time, use of multiple choice formats, use of oral exams rather than written demands, use of noise-canceling headsets, - all for impaired concentration, memory
  • reducing or discontinuing homework may be necessary for some students due to difficulties with concentration, sleep patterns, mood irritability.  For these students it may be necessary to schedule a resource room period at the beginning of the day to get assignments ready for the day, or at the end of the day to complete assignments before leaving school
  •  preferential seating can be used to help with vision, focus, reduce visual or auditory distraction, allow for discrete monitoring
  • and while a 504 plan will simply list the type of accommodation needed and the reasons for it/them, an IEP must contain objectives that are written with specific criteria; such as -Given a grade level reading assignment of 1 chapter with 4 comprehension questions, (name) will answer the questions with 60/70/80% accuracy. Or given an assignment containing 5 long division problems, (name) will complete 3/4/5 problems at 80% accuracy.