“No otherwise qualified person with a disability in the United States 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 receiving federal financial assistance.”
According to this law, an individual with a disability is a person who has a “physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities.” With regard to post-secondary students, “qualified” refers to a person with a disability who meets the “academic and technical standards” required for admission to or participation in an educational program or activity. Section 504 mandates “reasonable accommodations” for students with disabilities via such methods as alternative format textbooks, alternative testing arrangements, curb cuts, and ramps to entrances of classrooms and buildings.
It should be stressed that nothing in the language or intent of Section 504 abridges the freedom of an institution of higher education to establish academic requirements and standards.
The ADA, passed in 1990 and amended in 2008, gives people with disabilities the same rights that women and minorities have had since 1964. It prohibits discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations, transportation, and telecommunications. Employers are required to make “reasonable accommodations” for persons with disabilities unless such accommodations would result in “undue hardship.”
Essentially, Section 504 and the ADA require that colleges and universities make reasonable adjustments to ensure equal access to the educational experience. For example, it may be necessary to allow a student with a reading disability to have reading materials in an audio format. Other examples might include extending time limits on exams or allowing lectures to be recorded when disabilities impact a student’s ability to keep up with the lecturer. For students with physical disabilities, adjustments might need to be made to classrooms or sign interpreters might need to be provided.
Note that the emphasis in each of these adjustments is on the may. The key is accommodating for the effects of the disability, not altering course content. The “may” means that, with the exception of removing architectural barriers, no set formulas exist for making adjustments that will be helpful in every case. Thus, the adaptation will be specific to the needs of the individual student. In every case, the intent is to accommodate for the disability without altering academic standards or course content.
While in high school, the student’s home school-district was legally responsible for initiating, developing and providing all academic supports required for the student’s full access to and involvement in the educational process.
At the post-secondary level, this responsibility changes:
A reasonable accommodation ensures that a qualified student with a disability has an equal opportunity. Equal opportunity means that the student has the opportunity to achieve the same level of performance as a similarly situated student without a disability. Reasonable accommodations are guided by the barriers resulting from the disability and the course. The process of determining accommodations also considers what the essential elements of the course are and ensures that any accommodations will not compromise those elements. For example, an instructor may determine that class participation is fundamental to the course. In that case, a request for an attendance accommodation is not reasonable.
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