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FAQ for Faculty

November 22, 2023

According to the Americans With Disabilites Act, as individual with a disability (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment.

In higher education, a "qualified student with a disability" is one "who meets the academic and technical standards requisite for admission or participation in the institution's educational program or activity."

A diagnosis alone does not automatically qualify a student for accommodations. In reviewing accommodation requests, CASS focuses on functional limitations related to a disability and how they are likely to impact a student at Caltech. In cases of non-obvious disabilities, CASS generally requires documentation from a qualified medical provider, and in many cases will request additional details from providers.

The CASS provider documentation form shows some of the medical information we look for in determining accommodations.

If the student is being served by CASS, you will receive a letter of accommodation that specifically describes the accommodations a student needs to ensure their equal access in your course. If a student asks you for disability accommodations and you haven't yet received an accommodation letter, please refer the student to CASS. If a student is already registered with CASS, please ask them to log into the Accommodate Student Portal on the CASS website, so they can send their accommodation letters to you. Once you've received the electronic copy of the accommodation letter, you are then required to provide the accommodations described in the letter. If you have any questions about how to do this, please reach out to CASS.

We advise faculty to avoid providing informal disability accommodations to students outside of the recommendations for each individual student provided in the accommodation letter sent to faculty each term.

If a student identifies as having a disability, or discusses a condition that may be a disability, and there is indication that this may be impacting them at Caltech, it can be helpful to ask the student if they are familiar with CASS and encourage them to visit the CASS website to learn more about ways we can provide support. They can also call CASS at (626) 395-2961 or email

It's important to be aware that a number of students with disabilities at Caltech and other post-secondary schools may avoid seeking support services due to stigma. For example, some students may not want their peers or faculty to see them as different, or perhaps receiving any kind of "advantage" or "special treatment". Family and cultural factors may also contribute to stigma, especially for students who come from households or communities that may not openly discuss mental health issues. We do not want to pressure any student to work with CASS; however, if a student expresses such concerns, it can be helpful to let them know that reaching out to CASS does not require them to commit to receiving any services. We are happy to meet with students on a purely informational basis - they don't even need to share their name. CASS also keeps student information confidential (except in cases of safety concerns, or as part of our Title IX/Equity responsibilities), so students are in charge of who they share their disability information with.

A majority of the students served by CASS have invisible disabilities, which can include psychological or developmental conditions, as well as a number of temporary or chronic health conditions.

Information about disability can be a very personal thing. Some students may volunteer information about their disabilities, but faculty and staff should not ask students or otherwise put students in a position where they feel they need to divulge any details about their disability or other health conditions.

Most short-term illnesses (cold, flu, non-long COVID, etc . . .) are not considered disabilities, but it is generally reasonable for faculty to use their discretion when considering offering limited short-term extensions or absences for students who experience such illnesses. Some faculty do ask for a doctor's note (such a note might simply say that the student was ill for a certain period of time and recommended to rest at home), but please be aware that the Caltech Student Health Center and the Deans office do not provide sick notes, so this can make it difficult for some students to provide documentation.

If a student has missed a lot of class or assignments, it is helpful to refer the student to meet with their Dean to discuss options, such as possibly dropping a class, changing their grading status (Pass/No Pass), or in some cases, requesting an E or I grade.

The Undergraduate Deans' office and CTLO also provide guidance on supporting students with short-term illnesses unrelated to disability.

Requests for E grades are entirely up to the faculty and can be granted for any reason, but for some students, E grades can have unintended consequences. Many assigned E grades eventually lapse into failing grades, especially in cases when a student has a significant amount of work to make up after the end of a term. Incomplete grades can also impact a student's academic eligibility, and consequently their ability to participate in summer programs, such as SURF.

I grades are only offered for unexpected personal or medical emergencies or serious exacerbations that occur later in the term, and must be supported by a Dean. When a student requests an I grade, a Dean will reach out to faculty to verify that a student has already completed a majority of work in the class, and whether the faculty would also be in support of the I grade. If not, the student may be advised to consider late-dropping the class or other alternative options. CASS may provide recommendations to the Deans based on verified medical information during this process.

E or I grades should not be viewed by students as a bail-out, especially if they have been struggling in a course for a large portion of the term.

For more information about E and I grades, please read the Incompletes section in the Caltech Catalog.

Person-first language ("a person with a disability" vs. "a disabled person") has often been recommended based on the idea that people should not be defined by their disability. Yet for many individuals, disability or difference is an important part of their identity and a community they belong to, such as members of the Deaf community. This is also true for many other members of the disability and autism communities (some of who do not identify as disabled).

Ultimately, the choice of how a person is called should be up to them; similar to gender pronouns, respecting a student's identity can have a large impact on how supported and welcomed they feel in and beyond your classroom.

Students may be approved for disability accommodations at any time during the school year or term.

Note that approved accommodations are not retroactive, meaning that they will not apply to any tests, assignments, or absences, or other situations prior to when the accommodation letter is dated.