If you have a recognized disability, you can apply for a quiet room, additional time, or other appropriate accommodations for your licensing exam. Exact rules, and the process for applying, will vary by state. But every state has to make reasonable accommodations in the exam process under federal law.
Though there is little hard data, I’ve heard from multiple people who work for state licensing boards around the country that requests for disability accommodations are becoming more common in license exams for psychologists, counselors, social workers, and family therapists.
Folks I’ve talked to about this suggest three possible reasons.
- Examinees are less concerned about stigma when asking for accommodations.
- With better accommodations along the way, more therapists with disabilities are making it through the pipeline to licensure.
- More examinees are aware of the possibility of accommodations.
Each of those is good, and each probably has some truth to it. There’s also a fourth reason, spoken about in quieter tones, but also true: Examinees are sometimes desperate for any advantage they can get on their exam, considering how high the stakes are. They may apply for accommodations with weak justification, or even knowing that there is not actual justification, under the belief that the worst that can happen is the response is “no.”
Physical disabilities typically must be assessed and documented by physicians. Mental health disabilities can sometimes be assessed and documented by other therapists. (Again, rules vary by state.) Therapists are placed in a difficult position when a client, who is a therapist approaching the exam stage, asks the licensed therapist to provide a diagnosis simply to facilitate disability accommodations on the license exam. (This is similar to what’s happening with Emotional Support Animals. The only difference is what the client wants the therapist to write a letter for.) As a result, state licensing boards may be growing more skeptical of disability accommodation requests, particularly when the disability is related to mental health.
There are no villains here. It is appropriate for someone who believes they have a disability to seek out the diagnosis and documentation necessary for them to receive accommodations. If a client requests that a licensed therapist document a questionable disability, it is understandable for the licensed therapist to simply provide the documentation their client wants rather than risking a confrontation. And the exams themselves do not appear to serve their public protection purpose, so it makes sense when many take an attitude toward them that amounts to “just find a way through it.” But when all of these factors are present, it also makes sense for licensing boards to tighten their requirements for examinees to receive accommodations.
If you’re considering applying for disability accommodations on your exam, here are a few things to hold in mind.
- Accommodations are meant to level the playing field in test conditions, not test performance. If you have a vision impairment that makes it difficult to stare at a screen for extended periods, paper-and-pencil testing best provides you with fair conditions for the exam. But that change in conditions does not impact how much you know. No one is entitled to accommodations that make up for being less prepared or simply more nervous about the exam.
- You may need to provide documentation that the disability impacts daily functioning. If the only impact of your anxiety disorder is that you struggle on tests, it may not meet the state’s definition of a disability. A genuine disability interferes with daily functioning and is not limited to a single event or professional task.
- You may need to provide documentation that the disability is not new or simply convenient. Licensing boards will be understandably skeptical of an anxiety disorder or other mental health diagnosis that has arisen immediately prior to a license exam. They will be especially skeptical if they grant accommodations for an initial exam (like the law and ethics exam many states offer at the beginning of supervised experience), get a request for accommodations for a second exam (at the end of the supervised experience), and see no documentation of any treatment or anything else related to the disability during the time between the exams. Such a pattern has the appearance of being driven by a desire to gain an advantage on the test.
- Test anxiety is not a disability. If it was, almost everyone taking a licensing exam in mental health would qualify as disabled, and the term would lose its meaning. Your licensing exam is high-stakes, and it is understandable to be anxious about it. But justifiable anxiety is not adequate justification to be given extra time or other accommodations.
As I’ve said before, license exams are high-stakes, so it’s ok to be nervous about them. Obviously, don’t apply for disability accommodations unless you have an actual disability that impacts daily functioning outside of the testing context. If you do have a disability, having a good paper trail documenting the disability and any prior accommodations received (even in other contexts) may be helpful. The testing process may be less than ideal, but all of us — licensees, examinees, and the boards themselves — want a process that is fair and accessible to all who have earned the right to be there.