Letters of Recommendation & Disability

When asking for or writing recommendations and references for students with disabilities, as well as nominating students with disabilities for awards, consider the following tips.


  1. Ask the person you are approaching if they can write you a strong or positive letter of reference or recommendation. (Ask in person when possible, but definitely ask. And, if you are asking in an email, use a formal approach.) Be specific about the goal – graduate school application? Full-time employment position? Summer job? Internships?

    Sometimes students choose references based on convenience or comfortableness but these may not be the most appropriate for your situation. Choose carefully so that you have the most effective person as a reference. (For example, a student may ask an on-campus staff employer for a graduate school reference, when it would be more appropriate for them to ask a relevant faculty member/advisor.)
  2. Some faculty are willing to receive and review draft materials (applications, resumes, cover letters, etc.). Ask if the faculty member is willing to do this or only wants final, polished versions.
  3. Provide ample lead time for the reference to write the letter or complete the recommendation form(s). Ample lead time is usually at least a couple of weeks in advance. Some faculty and staff, especially at certain times of the year, may need additional time. Note that some faculty end up writing literally hundreds of letters each year for 30-40 students and asking at the last minute is not realistic.

    Also, if the reference will be receiving a phone call, advance notice is also needed. References often cannot do a good job of talking about you when they are surprised. In the event that a paper recommendation is required, provide stamped, addressed envelopes.
  4. Once a person has written a recommendation, it is often easier for them to write the second, third, fourth, etc. Consider asking the same person frequently, rather than asking different person (assuming that the type of application would not be better served by a different reference). And, if you know you will have multiple requests, ask for them all at the same time as much as possible.
  5. Provide job descriptions (or graduation school information), your resume, cover letter and/or application, web site (when applicable), and complete contact information of where the reference or recommendation should be sent or who will be calling. Contact information includes the formal name and location (address plus email, phone numbers, links and everything else). Do not make your reference have to figure out who to address it to, where to send it, or anything else.
  6. If you are certain that your reference knows that you get accommodations and/or have a disability, talk with them explicitly about whether or not to include that information. If you have a reason for disclosing at this time, talk with your reference about it. (i.e. You are dyslexic and want to work for a dyslexic advocacy organization, where it may be seen as a strength to meet the requirements of the position.)

Faculty and staff

  1. Writers should say what they would say about any other person, using observed strengths and limitations about fulfilling responsibilities, class performance, other accomplishments, and personal character as it pertains to the student’s goals.
  2. Avoid making reference to a student’s disability status or accommodations. The only exception is if the student explicitly asks you to do so. A conversation about why the student is asking for this would be in order. Even so, consider having the student read through the part about the disability/accommodations to see if it is communicated appropriately. (For example, “Even with her handicap, she could XYZ.” While that referee may mean well, the word “handicap” is outdated, and this sentence minimizes accomplishments by putting them only in the context of “she did well, but only for a disabled student” sentiment.)
  3. Try to separate the student’s performance from any accommodations. For example, the student may have missed your class or work numerous times for disability-related reasons, but when present did quality work and/or earned great grades. It is not appropriate to exclude them from writing a positive reference (for graduate school or employment) as they will qualify for accommodations in those experiences as well.
  4. If you are not comfortable making a recommendation, based on the student’s behavior and/or performance, decline to be a reference. Remember that accommodated reasons are inappropriate reasons for declining.
  5. Sometimes students choose references based on convenience or comfortableness. It would be beneficial, when applicable, to tell students that they should seek someone else more appropriate as a reference. (For example, a student may ask an on-campus staff employer for a graduate school reference, when it would be more appropriate for them to ask a relevant faculty member/advisor.)

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