Students With Disabilities...

Know Your Rights...

If you are disabled and plan on attending a college or university, you most certainly are not alone! One of the largest changes that you will have to deal with is the substantial difference between the special education services provided on the high school level and those at college.


Being well informed will help ensure you have a full opportunity to enjoy the benefits of the post-secondary education experience without confusion or delay.

 Resources are available to assist you as you make the transition into a college or university.

Download the guidebook for Higher Education Students with Disabilities,here:

Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504)


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is considered by many to be the first Federal civil-rights statute for persons with disabilities. First taking effect in 1977, Section 504 prohibited the discrimination of otherwise qualified individuals with a disability by any program or activity receiving Federal funding or other assistance. In regard to postsecondary education, Section 504 generally requires schools to provide “appropriate academic adjustments” to ensure against students with disabilities. Additionally, schools that provide housing to non-disabled students must also provide comparable and accessible housing to disabled students at the same price.


Under Section 504, a college or university may not:

  • Limit the number students with disabilities admitted;

  • Make any pre-admission inquiries as to whether an applicant has a disability;

  • Exclude a student with a disability from a course of study based solely on his or her disability;

  • Counsel a student with a disability towards a more restrictive career than a student without a disability unless the counsel is based on strict professional licensing or certification requirements;

  • Institute prohibitive rules that may adversely affect the performance of a student with a disability.


Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)


The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was enacted to, in general terms, extend similar protections against discrimination to Americans with disabilities as were afforded under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, national origin, and other factors illegal. Title II of the Act prohibits disability discrimination by all public entities on the state and local level, including public postsecondary schools. Title III of the Act prohibits disability discrimination by private colleges and universities with the exception of those controlled by religious entities. However, if a postsecondary school receives federal funding of any kind, including financial aid provided to its students, it is prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities under Section 504 even if the school is controlled by a religious entity.


Practically all school districts and postsecondary institutions in the United States are subject to the rules of one or both of these laws. As mentioned above, however, the requirements for postsecondary schools differ substantially from the requirements of school districts. Therefore, it is important for students with disabilities who plan on attending a college or university to be informed of their rights and understand those differences. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is tasked with enforcing both the ADA and Section 504, and is a good source of information regarding these rights.


It should be noted here that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), with which many parents and students are familiar, does not apply to postsecondary education.


In addition to the requirements set forth in the ADA and Section 504, individual states may have laws setting forth additional restrictions and requirements in regard to disabled students. Typically, these state laws mirror the Federal requirements in terms of funding. For example, in Virginia, public institutions receiving any form of state funding may not discriminate against students with disabilities. These laws vary, so make sure to check the specifics of any applicable law in your state.



Does Your Condition Qualify as a Disability?

The definition of disability under both the ADA and Section 504 are virtually the same. An individual with a disability is a person who:

  • has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; or

  • has a record of such an impairment; or

  • is regarded as having such an impairment.

Under Section 504, “major life activities” includes walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing,learning, working, caring for oneself, and performing manual tasks.


Examples of some of the more common disabilities that fall under the ADA and Section 504 are:


Blindness and Low Vision

The definition of legally blind is 20/200 vision with best correction. Students with blindness or low vision often have limitations in regard to reading, viewing classroom materials, videos and other presentations. They may have difficulty getting around campus or locating places or materials in a lab or classroom.


Deaf and Hard of Hearing


Deafness normally refers to profound hearing loss of 90 decibels or greater. Hard of hearing usually refers to those individuals with some residual hearing ability. Hearing loss can significantly limit a student’s ability to perceive and understand spoken language in the classroom as well as limit their mastering of English grammatical structure.


Chronic Health Impairments

Chronic health impairments commonly refer to visible disabilities as well as invisible illnesses or medical conditions. They include, among other things, AIDS, allergies, spinal or back problems, heart disease, lupus, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, respiratory disorders, seizure disorders, Tourette’s syndrome, recovered alcohol and drug addiction, and more. In many of these cases, the impairment can vary from day to day due to the nature of the disability, medication requirements and physical therapy.


Mobility Impairments


Mobility impairments refer to neuromuscular and orthopedic disabilities and can range from slight difficulties in movement to total paralysis. Limitations to students can include physical access to classrooms, offices, labs and rest rooms, as well as the use of standard furniture or other classroom equipment. They may also be limited in the use of fine-motor skill tasks such as taking notes, using computers, writing essays and tests, and completing science labs.

Head Injury


Head injury commonly refers to brain trauma caused by either external (blow to the head) or internal (stroke or tumor) events. Limitations can vary significantly, but often manifest as cognitive functioning problems with memory, concentration, response speeds, spatial reasoning, as well as motor-skill related tasks like reading, writing, speaking and listening.


Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD)

AD/HD refers to a specific type of neurobiological disorder resulting in inattentiveness, impulsiveness and/or hyperactivity. For students with AD/HD, the limitations include problems with completing tasks, impulsive behavior, and sustained attention.


Developmental Disabilities


Definitions for developmental disabilities can vary, but tend to refer to students with below average intellectual functioning and potential for measurable achievement in instructional settings. Developmentally disabled students may have problems with critical thinking, analysis and abstract reasoning, among others.

Learning Disabilities

Again, definitions can vary, but generally learning disabilities refer to a persistent condition of presumed neurological dysfunction that may exist with other disabling conditions. Students with learning disabilities often possess average to above average intelligence, but are inhibited from demonstrating that intelligence in one or more area of achievement, such as reading, writing or math. Limitations may take the form of problems with time management, organization, sustained attention, as well as deficits in auditory, visual and memory functions.



Psychological Disabilities

The heading of psychological disabilities covers a wide variety of conditions including mood disorders like bipolar disorder and depression, anxiety and panic disorders, OCD, and schizophrenia. Student limitations can take the form of increased stress, limited class choices due to time of instruction, and withdrawal from communication. Class attendance may be limited because of relapses and hospitalizations.


Keep in mind that the above list is not exhaustive. Deciding whether or not an individual qualifies as having a disability under the ADA or Section 504 is done on a case-by-case basis. In general, these laws require that the definition of a disability be construed broadly. However, it is important to remember that a person is not entitled to protection simply because he or she has been diagnosed with a disability. The disability must also substantially limit his or her ability to perform major life activities.


Temporary, non-chronic impairments of short duration with little or no residual effects do not typically qualify as disabilities. Additionally, conditions that do not qualify include environmental conditions and alternative lifestyles. Examples of conditions that commonly do not qualify include: minor illnesses like a cold or the flu; broken bones that completely heal; illegal drug use; compulsive gambling; pregnancy; old age; bisexuality; and homosexuality.



Informing Your School of Your Disability


Informing your postsecondary school about your disability is not required. It is fully voluntary. However, you must identify yourself and the nature of your disability if you intend for the school to provide an academic adjustments or ensure that you are assigned to accessible facilities. You will need to inform the department at the school in charge of students with disabilities within a reasonable time to allow them to provide the appropriate accommodations.



Documentation of Your Disability

If you have a disability and intend to request an accommodation from your school, you will likely be required to provide, at your expense, documentation of your disability. The requirements for documentation vary from school to school and are different for every type of disability. Your school’s documentation requirements can be very specific, so be sure that you fully understand them and file your documents in a timely manner.


Types of Accommodations

Under the ADA and Section 504, a college or university must provide “reasonable accommodations” for a student’s known disability in order to afford him/her an equal opportunity to participate in the school’s programs, activities and services. This includes extracurricular activities. What constitutes as a “reasonable accommodation” is a matter of constant debate. However, the overriding rule is that a college or university may not discriminate against an individual solely on the basis of disability and must provide academic adjustments to ensure that the student receives an equal opportunity to participate.


Obviously, the form of accommodation depends on a student’s specific disability, but they commonly include:

  • Additional time to complete tests, course work or graduation;

  • Substitution of non-essential courses for degree requirements;

  • Adaptation of, or modification to, course instruction;

  • Tape recording of classes;

  • The modification of test taking or performance evaluations so as not to discriminate against students with sensory, manual or speaking impairments.

  • Providing qualified interpreters, note takers, readers, computer aided transcription devices, assistive listening devices, and telecommunication devices for deaf persons

  • Physical facility modifications, such as removing architectural barriers, installing ramps, making curb cuts in sidewalks and entrances, repositioning shelves and installing hand controls.



There are limitations regarding what are considered “reasonable accommodations”. A college or university is not required to make any modifications or provide any aid or services that would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of a program. The school, for example, need not waive what is determined to be an essential course requirement. Additionally, a school is not required to make a modification or provide an aid or service if doing so constitutes an “undue burden” on the institution. In determining whether or not an undue burden exists, factors to be considered are the nature and cost of the action required in the context of the overall financial resources of the institution.


Examples of devices and services that a school is not required to provide include attendants, individually prescribed devices, readers for personal use or study, or other devices of a personal nature. In regard to tutorial services, a school is only obligated to provide them to students with disabilities to the same extent they are provided to non-disabled students.


Bear in mind that although schools are required to provide accommodations, it is up to the student to take the initiative in ensuring that the necessary services and aids are provided. No one understands your individual needs better than you, so make sure to communicate those needs to your school’s appropriate department.


 According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, "approximately 11% of all post-secondary undergraduates reported having some form of disability." 

—  Name, Title