Determining Essential Requirements

These guidelines were adopted from a document produced by the Inter-University Disability Issues Association (I-DIA) to assist disability service professionals in determining essential requirements when recommending reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities at their institutions. The following sections are particularly relevant for university instructors.


Reasonable Accommodations
Refer to modifications or adjustments to a course, program, service, activity, or facility that provide a qualified individual with a disability an equal opportunity to obtain the same benefit, or to attain the same level of achievement or to enjoy equal benefits and privileges as those available to a similarly situated individual without a disability. Postsecondary institutions are obligated to make reasonable accommodations only to the known limitations of otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities. They are not obligated to provide accommodations that would fundamentally alter the essential components of a course of study.

Essential Requirements
“Essential requirements” is a specific term used in human rights legislation, referring to the bona fide requirements of a task or program that cannot be altered without compromising the fundamental nature of the task or program. Determining what is an essential requirement and what is not is critical in distinguishing requirements that cannot be accommodated from what can and should be altered.

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (2003):

Terms that have been used [to describe essential requirements] include indispensable, vital, and very important. Thus, a requirement should not lightly be considered to be essential, but should be carefully scrutinized. This includes course requirements and standards. For example, it may likely be an essential requirement that a student master core aspects of a course curriculum. It is much less likely that it will be an essential requirement to demonstrate the mastery in a particular format, unless mastery of that format (e.g. oral communication) is also a vital requirement of the program. In contrast, non-essential duties would not detract from the main purpose of the course or program if they were not done or done in a different manner. (p.62)

“Essential” can therefore be defined by two factors:

  1. the skill must be demonstrated to meet the objectives of the course; and
  2. the skill must be demonstrated in a prescribed manner.


Undue Hardship
According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (2003):

  • Educators must provide accommodation, up to the point of undue hardship, to enable students to meet the essential requirements. (p.62)
  • [It is therefore important to disability service professional to understand that] it is not discriminatory to refuse an [accommodation] because a person is incapable of fulfilling the essential requirements. . . . However, a person will only be considered incapable if the needs of the person cannot be accommodated without undue hardship. (p.10)

In the Policy and Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate (2001) the Ontario Human Rights Commission prescribes three factors when considering undue hardship:

  1. Cost
    Quantifiable, [based on the operating budget of the institution, not the individual OSD]; Substantial such that it would alter the essential nature of the enterprise, or so significant that they would substantially affect its viability. (p.30)
  2. Outside Sources of Funding
    Make use of outside resources in order to meet the duty to accommodate and must first do so before claiming undue hardship. (p.33)
  3. Health and Safety
    [The institution] would need to demonstrate that the [health and safety] standard is reasonably necessary and that accommodation cannot be accomplished without incurring undue hardship. (p. 34)

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (2003) noted that:

There may be situations where a student [appears to pose] a health and safety risk to him or herself that would amount to an undue hardship, or an otherwise appropriate accommodation is impossible to implement in the particular circumstances. However, it is important that education providers not rush to such a conclusion. Further training for staff, or further supports for the student may resolve the issue. [The threshold for undue hardship is high] and therefore the accommodation process must be fully explored, to the point of undue hardship. (p.70)

Where there is a dispute regarding a proposed accommodation, and [the university/faculty/field supervisor] alleges undue hardship, the onus is on the [university/faculty/field supervisor] to demonstrate it. It is not the responsibility of a student seeking accommodation to prove that a proposed accommodation would not cause undue hardship. (p.58-59).


Questions to Consider When Determining Essential Course Requirements

It is important that instructors identify the essential requirements (or components) in their course and/or program. If an instructor is clear about what is being taught, and why it must be done a certain way, it is much easier to find creative solutions to the needs of students with disabilities.

The following open-ended questions have been drawn from various documents relating to essential requirements. Phrasing variations have been provided to account for different communication styles, backgrounds and knowledge bases.

Learning Objectives
1. What is the purpose of this course? (Scott and Maniltz, 2000, p. 35).
2. Would elimination of the skills/knowledge/attitude alter the learning objectives of this course/program? (Blacklock, 2001).
3. Is the competency integral to the learning of this course? (Wales, 1997)
4. Are the skills/knowledge/attitudes an integral part of the learning objectives of the course? (Blacklock, 2001).
5. Does the ability or skill necessarily need to be performed in a prescribed manner? Why?
6. Was this course created to teach any of the skills/knowledge/attitudes? (Blacklock, 2001)
7. Would these accommodations require a fundamental alteration in the nature of the program, service, or activity? (Blacklock, 2001)
8. What is the purpose of the program?
9. What are the outcome variables that are absolutely required of all participants?
* What academic skills can be demonstrated?
* What percentage of subject area knowledge must be mastered?
* What specific knowledge, principles or concepts must be mastered?
10. What methods of instruction are non-negotiable? Why?
11. What methods of assessing outcome variables are absolutely necessary? Why?

Alternate Method
12. Is there only one way for the skills/knowledge/attitudes to be demonstrated? (Blacklock, 2001)
13. Is there an alternative way to do the same work?
14. Academic Adjustment: Substituting Exam Methods
Is the exam methodology specifically designed to test the particular course material? (Hicks, Morley, 2000, p.27).

Undue Hardship/Consequences if Accommodated
15. Would there be any significant* consequences if this skill were performed at varying levels of competency?

  • Does it put the student or others in danger?
  • Does it make a difference to the field acquisition of unique approaches or philosophies?
  • Does it make a big difference to the student’s life or future? (Wales, `1997)

16. Would there be any significant consequences if the skills/knowledge/attitudes were not learned? (Blacklock, 2001)
17. Will accommodating the individual needs pose a risk to personal or public safety?

Skill Analysis
18. Will the student have to transfer the skill to different settings? (i.e., Field placement) (Wales, 1997)
19. Does the student have to be physically able to perform this skill [themselves]? (Wales, 1997)
20. Does the student need to be cognitively able to perform the skills/knowledge/attitudes themselves? (Blacklock, 2001)
21. What are the acceptable levels of performance on these measures? Why?
22. What pre-existing abilities or skills must all participating students possess?