Legal Issues

Ensuring that individuals with disabilities can participate in education can be argued on ethical grounds. Some simply consider it to be the right thing to do. Others are more responsive to legal mandates. Educators should be aware of the key legislative mandates that address disability-related issues in society.

This website does not provide legal advice; consult legal specialists at your institution for that. The following federal legislation will be reviewed in this section:

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990

Rehabilitation Act

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was designed to ensure that any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance does not discriminate on the basis of disability. Almost all postsecondary institutions must comply with Section 504, even those that are private, recieve federal funds of some type. A "person with a disability" is defined as any person who (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, (2) has record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment. Major life activities include walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, caring for oneself, and performing manual tasks.

Examples of disabilities that can impact a student student participation include, but are not limited to, AIDS, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, head injuries, hearing impairments, learning disabilities, loss of limbs, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, psychiatric disorders, speech impairments, spinal cord injuries, and vision impairments. Some of these conditions are visible, while other conditions, such as learning or psychiatric, are "invisible. " Factors such as fatigue, pain, or medication side effects can also impact an individual's ability to perform specific life and academic-related tasks. In all cases, postsecondary institutions have a responsibility to provide program access to qualified students with disabilities.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990, many provisions of Section 504 were extended to public and private entities that do not receive federal funding. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 along with its 2008 amendments, requires that people with disabilities be provided equal access to public programs and services. According to this law, no otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities shall, solely by reason of their disabilities, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in these programs. The ADA also requires no discrimination in employment practices, communications, and transportation.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, "no otherwise qualified individual with a disability shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity." Making a service or program accessible is the responsibility of the organization that sponsors it. For example, a student who uses a wheelchair and meets the qualifications for admission to medical school cannot be denied access to the program because the school does not have an elevator in one of the buildings. Access requirements extend past the classroom to all programs and services made available to the public, such as presentations, online resources, athletic programs, and extracurricular offerings hosted by a college.

Reasonable accommodations may include, but are not limited to, redesigning equipment, assigning aides, producing written communication in alternative formats, modifying tests, providing a sign language interpreter, relocating services to accessible locations, and altering existing facilities. For example, a student who is blind might speak test answers into a audio recorder, or a scribe might write them down. An assistant or a screen reading device could read the test questions out loud. Reasonable accommodations do not include personal devices such as hearing aids, wheelchairs, and glasses.

When people think of the ADA they often think of elevators in buildings, reserved spaces in parking lots, lifts on busses, and other adjustments that allow physical access. However, the ADA accessibility requirements also apply to programs offered on the Internet. As the United States Department of Justice has long held that ("ADA Accessibility," 1997), "Covered entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means as well." At educational institutions, the content of video presentations and Web sites assigned to students, and software needed for coursework must be accessible to students with disabilities including those who use assistive technology. For example, a blind student using text-to-speech software must be assured access to the content of Web pages; this means that content presented in a graphical form must also be provided in text so his system can read it to him.

People who feel they have been discriminated against can approach the campus ADA compliance officer, file a complaint with the relevant federal agency, and/or file a lawsuit. For example, people with disabilities have filed complaints with the Office of Civil Rights and/or sued postsecondary programs because they were denied the opportunity to take a course, to participate in a co-op activity, or to submit assignments in alternative formats. In some settlement agreements postsecondary institutions have agreed to a make a broad range of programs and facilities more accessible to people with disabilities, including academic programs, dining and living facilities, and social aspects of campus life. Professional testing programs have also been required by the Department of Justice to provide sign language interpreters, assistive listening devices, and alternative formats to students taking these exams as well as preparation courses for the examinations. Enforcement agencies encourage informal mediation and voluntary compliance.

To sum up, federal legislation requires that institutions accept otherwise qualified students with disabilities into our academic programs and make resources available to all authorized to use them. Resonable accommodations that will grant students access to educational opportunities must be provided to students with disabilities who provide evidence of a disability and make a request for accommodations. There are experienced staff on campus to assist instructors in understanding the effects of disabilities on the learn