The Right to Accommodations

A "person with a disability" means "any person who has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities including walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working; has a record of such impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment."

Examples of disabilities that can impact a student in postsecondary education include, but are not limited to, AIDS, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, head injuries, hearing impairment, learning disabilities, loss of limbs, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, psychiatric disorders, speech impairments, spinal cord injuries, and visual impairments.

Many of the conditions listed may limit individuals' abilities to perform specific life tasks. Some of these conditions are visible, while other conditions, such as learning or psychiatric disabilities, are "invisible." Individuals with the same diagnosis or label may present a range of symptoms and functional limitations. For example, an individual with cerebral palsy may need to use a wheelchair, may be unable to speak, and may require a personal assistant for self care. Another person with cerebral palsy may walk with a cane and manage all personal care tasks and communication independently. Likewise, an individual with a learning disability may have difficulties with reading, writing, math and/or processing verbal information. Clearly, each individual has unique needs in postsecondary education settings. In all cases, the institution has a responsibility to provide program access to qualified students with disabilities.

The design of a product or environment that is flexible and meets the needs of a wide range of users can eliminate or minimize the need for specific accommodations for a person with a disability. In contrast, a mismatch between the individual with a disability and the environment, attitudes, or society can create or exacerbate barriers. For example, an individual with a mobility impairment may fully participate in most life activities if the buildings, transportation, and facilities he uses are wheelchair accessible. However, when he cannot accept a job or attend a class because the work site or classroom environment is inaccessible, he is being excluded as a consequence of an architectural barrier that prohibits access. Similarly, captioning on video recordings eliminate the need for an accommodation for a deaf student.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities and mandates the provision of reasonable accommodations to ensure access to programs and services. Reasonable accommodations may include, but are not limited to, redesigning equipment, assigning aides, providing written communication in alternative formats, modifying tests, redesigning services to accessible locations, altering existing facilities, and building new facilities. Reasonable accommodations do not include personal devices such as hearing aids, wheelchairs, and glasses.

Students with disabilities who desire academic accommodations must register with the disability student services office and provide proper documentation of their disabilities. This office will determine the accommodations, if any, that are reasonable for the student. Many students with disabilities do not identify themselves as having a disability because they do not feel that they need academic accommodations. The need for accommodations depends on the students' abilities and the course requirements. Ultimately, a student with a disability requires alternative arrangements only when faced with a task that requires skill that her disability precludes.