While in preschool, elementary and high school children with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504. The public schools have an affirmative obligation during those school years to assess and identify children with disabilities and develop a plan to meet their individual educational needs. But what is the obligation of colleges and other post secondary education programs to students with disabilities after the high school years? Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 (for programs receiving federal support) require that post secondary schools (including postsecondary vocational programs) ensure that qualified students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate in the postsecondary school’s program. To that end, postsecondary schools are required to make appropriate academic adjustments and to provide qualified students with disabilities with the auxiliary aids and services needed to ensure equal access to the school program.
Who are qualified students with disabilities?
Postsecondary schools are not obligated to admit persons with disabilities to their programs who do not meet the requirements for admission. A student is “qualified” if the student meets the academic and technical standards required for admission to the school program. A student who is qualified and has a disability cannot be discriminated against based on their disability. A student has a disability if the student has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.
What are the responsibilities of the postsecondary school?
The postsecondary school cannot discriminate on the basis of a student’s disability. This means the school needs to take steps to make sure the student is not denied the benefits of the school program, excluded from participating in the school program, or otherwise discriminated against. The nondiscrimination protection of the ADA and 504 apply to all aspects of the postsecondary program including financial aid, housing, nonacademic services, and academic course related services. Included in nonacademic services are physical education, club and intramural athletics, social organizations like fraternities and sororities, and counseling and placement services. Regarding the academic program, the school must make modifications to its academic requirements if those requirements have the effect of discriminating based on a student’s disability.
Examples of these modifications are changes in the length of time permitted for completing a degree, extended time for testing, arranging for priority registration, reducing course load, substituting specific courses needed to complete a degree, and adapting how specific courses are conducted. But the school is not required to make academic adjustments that lower or substantially modify essential academic requirements. For example, a student may be entitled to extra time on a test, but not a change or lowering of the substantive content of the test. Finally, the school must also provide appropriate auxiliary aids and services to afford the student equal access to the school program.
What are auxiliary aids and services?
Examples of auxiliary aids include: taped texts, note takers, interpreters, readers, videotext displays, television enlargers, talking calculators, electronic readers, Braille, calculators, telephone handset amplifiers, closed captioned decoders, specialized gym equipment, calculators or keyboards with large buttons, reaching devices for library use, and assistive listening devices.
The purpose of providing the auxiliary aid is to ensure equal access and participation for the student with a disability. Thus, the auxiliary aid needs to be effective. Not all students with similar disabilities will benefit from the same auxiliary aid. So, in order for the auxiliary aid to be effective, it should be selected individually and the student should participate in the selection.
What about the cost of the auxiliary aid? Is the postsecondary school’s obligation unlimited?
If the student needs the aid to have equal access to the academic program, the school must provide the aid at no cost to the student, unless providing the aid would cause an undue burden on the school. Undue burden means that in light of the school’s overall size and budget, providing the auxiliary aid or modification would be significantly difficult or expensive. Given that the cost of the aid is compared to the overall budget of the school, in most cases, providing the aid will not be considered an undue burden on the school.
What about attendant care and other personal aids and services?
Postsecondary schools and programs are not required to provide aids and services to students that are personal. Personal aids and services include help in bathing, dressing, or other personnel care. Thus, postsecondary schools are not required to provide personal attendants or individually prescribed devices, such as eye glasses. A service may be personal in one context, but required in another. For example, the school may be required to provide a “reader” to a student during classroom instruction, but would not be required to provide the reader for personal use or during individual study time.
What are the student’s responsibilities?
A student with a disability who desires a modification in the postsecondary school’s requirements or desires an auxiliary aid must notify the school of the nature of the disability and help identify the appropriate auxiliary aids and academic adjustments. While in elementary and high school, the public schools are required to assess and identify students with disabilities and to determine appropriate aids and services for the student. But after high school the student takes on that responsibility. The student should inform the appropriate office or individual at the school that the student has a disability and needs a modification to the program or an auxiliary aid or service. Most postsecondary schools will have an ADA or 504 Coordinator who is responsible for assisting students with disabilities and many schools have a specific office of disability services. The student is responsible for finding out the school’s process for granting an academic adjustment or providing auxiliary aids and services and following through on that process.
As part of the process, the school can require that the student provide documentation of the disability and support for needing the auxiliary aid or academic adjustment. If the student received special education services and had an IEP while in high school, or the student had a 504 plan, the student’s IEP or 504 plan may provide adequate documentation. Specifically, the IDEA requires that students in special education are provided a summary of performance if the student graduates with a regular diploma or ages out of special education services. The summary of performance includes recommendations on how to help the student meet postsecondary goals, so it might be a useful tool for documenting the student’s need for academic adjustments or auxiliary aids after high school. Postsecondary education, however, has different demands than high school, and additional documentation or assessments may be needed. The postsecondary school is not required to pay for those additional assessments.
If the student’s disability is a barrier to the student becoming employed, the student might be eligible for vocational rehabilitation services from the state vocational rehabilitation agency. In that case, the state vocational rehabilitation agency may pay for the cost of evaluation. Vocational rehabilitation agencies are also a resource for other services to support individuals with disabilities in obtaining employment, including support in postsecondary educational programs. It might, therefore, be very useful for students with disabilities to contact their state vocational rehabilitation agency for assistance.
What does the student do if the school denies the request for a modification or provision of an auxiliary aid?
As noted, most postsecondary schools have a 504/ADA coordinator and all schools are required to have grievance procedures. The student with a disability might start by contacting the 504/ADA Coordinator and/or getting information on the school’s grievance process. Students can also file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights within the U. S. Department of Education. The student might choose to go through the school’s internal grievance process before filing a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, but the student has a right to file the complaint without first using the grievance process or waiting for its completion. Individuals with disabilities also have a right to file a lawsuit for violations of the ADA and 504.