Disabilities in Higher Education

What laws protect students with disabilities at colleges, universities, junior colleges, professional schools, online schools, and trade and technical schools?

In California, students and applicants with disabilities may  also be protected by the Unruh Civil Rights Act (Unruh Act) , California Government Code Section 11135 (Section 11135), and California Civil Code Section 54 (Section 54) . Generally, any violation of the ADA or Section 504 is also a violation of the Unruh Act, Section 11135, or Section 54, but these state laws may provide greater protections in some cases. All of these laws apply to online and distance education courses provided by public and private schools.

Who is protected by the ADA, Section 504, California’s Unruh Act, Section 54, and Section 11135?

A person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity is “disabled” under the ADA or Section 504. A person with a physical or mental impairment that limits a major life activity is “disabled” under the Unruh Act and other California state laws. It is helpful to break down this definition into its parts: “Major life activities” include:

  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Speaking
  • Performing manual tasks
  • Sexual relations
  • Sleeping
  • Breathing
  • Bodily functions
  • Standing
  • Reading
  • Concentrating
  • Walking
  • Caring for oneself
  • Learning
  • Thinking
  • Reproduction
  • Interacting with others
  • Working

An impairment limits a major life activity if it makes achieving the activity more difficult. An impairment may be substantially limiting if it restricts an individual’s ability to perform a major life activity compared to most people.

What if my condition is stabilized with medication or I use a prosthetic device?

Under California law and the amended ADA, a disability is considered without regard to “mitigating measures” such as medication, prosthetics, assistive technology, or other devices or strategies used to help manage the effects of the condition. This means that people with physical or mental conditions who are currently stable due to medications or treatment are still protected.

Who else is protected?

The ADA and Section 504 also protect people who are discriminated against because they are regarded or perceived as having a disability, even if they do not. Also protected are persons with a record or history of a disability. In addition, the Unruh Act, Section 11135, and Section 54 protect persons who are not currently disabled, but who may become disabled in the future.

What are my rights if I have a disability?

Under federal and state law, schools cannot discriminate against qualified students and applicants with disabilities. This means that if you have a disability and meet academic or other standards for admission to or participation in school programs, you cannot be treated differently—denied admission or enrollment, graded poorly, failed, suspended, expelled, or harassed—because of your disability. Qualified students with disabilities may also obtain reasonable accommodations so that they can participate in school programs. Generally, schools are required to ensure that all of their programs, services, activities, and facilities are accessible to persons with disabilities. Further, you may not be retaliated against for asking for an accommodation or otherwise asserting your rights.

What is a reasonable accommodation?

Reasonable accommodations are adjustments or modifications made to a school policy, or specific supports or services provided to a student with a disability, that enable the student to participate in school programs, including admissions, academics, vocational education, online and distance education courses, housing, physical education, athletics, recreation, extracurricular activities, transportation, counseling, health insurance (covering both physical and psychiatric disabilities), and financial aid.

Whether a particular accommodation request is reasonable depends upon the situation and the type of program. The accommodation, however, may not be unduly costly or disruptive for the school, or be for the student’s personal use only. A student has the right to refuse a particular accommodation.

Examples of modifications of school policies include:

  • Not assessing penalties for spelling errors on papers or exams;
  • Allowing substitutions for certain required or prerequisite courses;
  • Allowing extra time on exams or to turn in assignments;
  • Providing exams in an alternate format;
  • Providing online and distance education course videos in an accessible format;
  • Allowing a reduced course load and extra time in which to earn a degree;
  • Providing housing accommodations for a student’s attendant;
  • Reassigning a classroom to an accessible location;
  • Providing assistance in applying for financial aid.

Examples of supports or services that may be provided to a student include:

  • Interpreters;
  • Notetakers;
  • Taped texts;
  • Readers;
  • Videotext displays;
  • Talking calculators;
  • Braille calculators, printers, or typewriters;
  • Telephone handset amplifiers;
  • Closed caption decoders;
  • Open and closed caption TV;
  • Voice synthesizers;
  • Specialized gym equipment;
  • Raised-line drawing kits;
  • Assistive listening devices or systems;
  • TTYs or TTDs;
  • Assistance with transporting and manipulating educational equipment;
  • Reaching device for library use.

Students may not be charged for these supports and services, although the school may pay for them by helping a student obtain reimbursement from an outside organization, such as a state rehabilitation agency. The process of obtaining supports or services in higher education settings may be different from that in elementary, middle, and high school. A student with a disability who has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in grade school shares responsibility—and sometimes does not participate much at all—for identifying and obtaining services or supports with parents, school administrators, teachers, and specialists. In postsecondary schools, however, the student has the primary responsibility for identifying and documenting her disability and requesting specific supports, services, and other accommodations to meet her needs.

When is a school required to accommodate a student or applicant?

A school is only required to accommodate known disabilities. There is no one specific way for a student to notify a school about a disability, and the school’s knowledge of the disability may be implied. To guarantee the legal right to an accommodation, however, you should disclose your disability—before your performance suffers because you do not have the accommodation(s) you need.

Who do I talk to if I need a reasonable accommodation?

Generally, postsecondary schools have Offices for Students with Disabilities which process requests for accommodations; in California, for example, all community colleges have Disabled Students Programs and Services (DSPS) offices that handle accommodations requests. Whether or not this is the case, a student with a disability can also speak with the school’s ADA or Section 504 Coordinator, the Dean of Student Affairs, an academic advisor, or a teacher to disclose a disability and ask for an accommodation.

What do I have to say to let the school know I need a reasonable accommodation?

You must provide the school with enough information to show the existence of an impairment, and its impact on a major life activity. To be safe, you should use words such as “disability,” “impairment,” “limiting,” “major life activities,” and “accommodation.” You do not necessarily need to tell the school all the details of the disability or disclose your diagnosis.

Do I have to request an accommodation in writing?

No. While you can request an accommodation in writing, you can also request one orally, through e-mail, or by any other form of communication. Also, it is a good idea to keep a record of your request in case there is a dispute in the future over whether or when you made the request.

Do I have to release my medical records to obtain accommodations?

No. If your disability or your need for accommodation is not obvious, however, your school may ask for reasonable medical documentation. The documentation should be limited to a doctor’s note or other documents, such as test results or diagnostic reports from grade school, showing that you have a disability and need accommodation. You are not required to produce your entire medical or mental health history.

What happens after I request an accommodation?

Once you request an accommodation, the school must make a reasonable effort to determine the appropriate accommodation. However, you must also be willing to participate in the process of developing and implementing the accommodation. Students who do not fully participate in the process may lose their rights. This participation may require the student to submit requested medical documentation and to attend scheduled meetings. If the school or student rejects a suggested accommodation, the student must take steps to continue the process. To protect your rights, take proactive steps, such as:

  • Presenting accommodation requests to the school in writing;
  • Suggesting alternative accommodations;
  • Scheduling and attending meetings with school officials to discuss accommodations;
  • Writing down the names of people you speak to about accommodations, and also the dates and times you talk to them;
  • Keeping copies of all documents relating to your disability and education, including any letters you send to or receive from your school.

What if a professor tells me I can’t have the accommodation I need?

Sometimes professors don’t understand that accommodations are necessary so that students with disabilities can participate fully in class. Even if the professor is concerned about having her lecture taped, she may have to permit taping to allow a student with visual impairments to benefit from a course. Even if a professor is uncomfortable with permitting extra time for examinations, she may have to allow a student who needs extra time for processing information to have it. If your professor refuses to let you use the accommodation you need, or gives you “attitude” about using it, contact the Office for Students with Disabilities, the Dean of Student Affairs, or your faculty advisor to ask them to speak with the professor.

What if I need an accommodation to apply to the school?

The school must modify admissions tests so that test results accurately reflect your aptitude, knowledge, or achievement level—not your disability. The school cannot ask you if you have a disability and need an accommodation during the admissions process. Additionally, the College Board may not indicate to colleges or universities that a student received an accommodation on the SAT, PSAT, or any Advanced Placement Tests. If you need a reasonable accommodation to complete admissions forms, ask the school admissions office or Office for Students with Disabilities.

What if the campus is inaccessible?

By law, all schools have to make all their programs, services, and activities accessible to students with disabilities, in the most integrated setting appropriate. Schools can do this by making all of their facilities accessible, or by reassigning students or programs to accessible facilities. Additionally, all new school buildings should be completely accessible. To make a facility or part of a facility accessible, schools should:

  • Install ramps
  • Make curb cuts in sidewalks and entrances
  • Reposition shelves
  • Rearrange tables, chairs, and vending machines
  • Widen doorways
  • Eliminate turnstiles
  • Install designated accessible wheelchair seating in auditoriums
  • Add Braille in elevators
  • Install grab bars at toilets
  • Rearrange toilet partitions to increase maneuvering space
  • Insulate lavatory pipes
  • Install a raised toilet seat
  • Install a full-length bathroom mirror
  • Create designated accessible parking spaces
  • Maintain elevators
  • Install automatic door openers
  • Install visual alarms
  • Provide TTYs and TTDs
  • Ensure that school websites and course management systems are accessible

If you think your classroom building, dormitory, library, student center, school website, or other school facilities are inaccessible, contact your Office for Students with Disabilities or Dean of Student Affairs.

What can I do if my college refuses to give me the accommodations I need, or discriminates against me because of my disability?

If your school refuses to provide you with the reasonable accommodation you need, fails to address access problems, or otherwise discriminates against you because of your disability, you can:

  • File an internal grievance or complaint with the school.
  • File a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education.
  • File a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
  • Try to resolve things informally, by negotiating directly with the school or with a mediator.
  • File a lawsuit: You can file a lawsuit in federal or state court. If you seek money damages only (under $5000), you can file a complaint in small claims court. You can file a lawsuit regardless of whether you have filed a complaint with the school, OCR, or DOJ.