Disability Laws and Regulations
Title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is generally regarded as the first federal "civil rights" statute for people with disabilities. Title V mandates nondiscrimination in federal agencies (Section 501) and the establishment of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Section 502). Of most direct importance to the postsecondary education community are Sections 503 and 504.
Section 503 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment in institutions that receive federal funding. Section 503 is not an affirmative action statute and does not include a requirement to give preference in employment to qualified people with disabilities. Section 503 does, however, include a mandate to actively encourage application and consideration for employment of disabled candidates.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a program access statute that is designed to ensure that programs receiving Federal funding be accessible to students with disabilities. The legislation states that:
"No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal Financial Assistance..."
It is this Section 504 mandate that has prompted the development of disability support services and programs in colleges and universities across the United States. Subpart E of Section 504 deals specifically with postsecondary educational institutions. Although it does not require special educational programming be created for disabled college students, it does require that an institution (public or private) be prepared to make appropriate adjustments and reasonable modifications to policies and practices in order to allow the full participation of students with disabilities in the same programs and activities available to nondisabled students.
In order to comply with this mandate, colleges and universities that receive federal assistance must provide the same opportunities for qualified students with disabilities as for qualified nondisabled students to participate in campus programs and activities such as academic, social, recreational and health services, counseling, transportation and all other college or university sponsored programs and activities.
Quotas for admission of disabled students are not allowed, nor are pre-admission inquiries regarding an applicant's disability, unless such inquiry is to determine what auxiliary aids and/or services should be provided to ensure the applicant's equal opportunity.
Tests which the institution uses must not discriminate against students with disabilities. Tests must be selected and administered so that the results for students with impaired sensory, manual, speaking and/or information processing skills are not distorted and so that the tests accurately measure the student's achievement or knowledge level rather than his/her disability. Thus, academic ability must be the sole basis for participation in postsecondary education.
In order to ensure equal opportunity, the overall postsecondary educational experience of a student with a disability must be comparable to that of his/her non-disabled peers. This may necessitate different treatment in some situations.
Postsecondary institutions must ensure that all programs are accessible to disabled students and employees. The institution is not required to make all classroom buildings physically accessible. Accessibility can be achieved by rescheduling classes to accessible buildings or by taking other steps to ensure program accessibility. Thus, not all buildings must be physically accessible, but all programs must be accessible.
Students with impaired sensory, manual, language or information processing abilities must be provided with educational auxiliary aids and services such as readers, taped textbooks, voice synthesizers, assistance with completing forms, large print, reading machines, manual communication interpreters, adapted classroom equipment, and other similar educational services or equipment. The institution cannot charge students with disabilities for auxiliary aids or services regardless of budgetary constraints. However, the institution can request that the student seek benefits through other outside agencies such as the state Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. The institution also cannot impose rules which prohibit the use of such aids in the classroom.
Modification of academic requirements may be necessary to accommodate qualified students with disabilities. Modifications may include changes in the length of time permitted for the completion of degree requirements and the adaptation of the manner in which courses are conducted or in the manner in which learning is demonstrated or evaluated. The modification of requirements essential to program instruction, academic standards and licensing are not required under the law.
Accessibility: The Key to Equal Opportunity
Assurance of equal educational opportunity rests upon legal foundations established by federal law, specifically the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 including Section 504, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. By federal law, a person with a disability is any person who: 1) has a physical or mental impairment; 2) has a record of such impairment; or 3) is regarded as having such an impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities such as self-care, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, or learning.
Every student with a documented disability has the following rights:
- Equal access to courses, programs, services, jobs, activities, and facilities available through the college or university.
- Reasonable and appropriate accommodations, academic adjustments, and/or auxiliary aids determined on a case-by-case basis.
- Appropriate confidentiality of all information pertaining to his/her disability with the choice of whom to disclose their disability to except as required by law.
- Information reasonably available in accessible formats.
A reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment to a course, program, service, job, activity, or facility that enables a qualified student with a disability to have an equal opportunity. An equal opportunity means an opportunity to attain the same level of performance or to enjoy equal benefits and privileges as are available to a similarly-situated student without a disability. The college is obligated to make a reasonable accommodation only to the known limitations of an otherwise qualified disabled student.