Laws Impacting Students with Disabilities

What are the key laws impacting students with disabilities?

Federal law dictates that no disability — including learning disabilities, physical disabilities, or mental illness — should prevent an individual from receiving fair and equal access to an education.

Everyone learns differently. That’s a given. While this is a popular phrase, not everyone considers the full extent of what it means. Disabilities, including learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and mental illness, can act as a barrier to earning an education, but federal law says these challenges should not prevent individuals from having an equal opportunity. If you are a student with a disability, special accommodations are available, and schools are required by law to provide these accommodations to the extent that no one is prohibited from earning an education because of disability.

Below, we lay out the history and details of key legislation affecting students with disabilities.

The History of Disability Legislation in America

It is easy today to take for granted how integrated into society disability accommodations and awareness have become. That’s not to say things are perfect. Far from it. People with disabilities still deal with varying levels of stigma and marginalization in everyday life and the media. And as with anything else, not everyone follows the law. However, we have come a long way, especially in the last half-century.

Not so long ago it was the case that if you needed special accommodations, you had to buy them yourself, which created a major economic barrier for many families living with disability. Some businesses and schools might have offered accommodations, but as a general rule of thumb, prior to the 1970s, individuals with disabilities had no legal protection against discrimination. Businesses could refuse to hire someone because of a disability, and schools could bar admission. Or simply through their lack of legal obligation, public institutions, businesses and schools could decline to create pathways of access for individuals with all manner of disability.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Change came with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 [PDF], from which more modern disability legislation can trace its lineage. In a broad sense, the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination in settings of or relating to the federal government, and largely has to do with employment. Federal agencies cannot practice discriminatory hiring, nor can subcontractors receiving federal funds. Most pertinent to the focus of this article is section 504, which stipulates that entities and programs receiving federal funding cannot discriminate against people with disabilities. Because federal financial aid equates to federal funding, this means that non-profit public and private colleges alike are required to follow section 504 and cannot discriminate against students. This legislation would not, however, include requirements for institutions to create accommodations or improve accessibility.

Education for All Handicapped Children of 1975

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was met with some political pushback, but it did invoke change. Soon to follow was the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Building on section 504, IDEA consists of six core pillars that ensure quality education and care for children with disabilities:

  • Individualized Education Program (IEP)
  • Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
  • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
  • Appropriate evaluation
  • Parent and teacher participation
  • Procedural safeguards

It is worth noting that IDEA applies to children in pre-K–12 school systems, and has greater implications for public schools than private schools (private schools cannot provide free public education, of course). Though it does not explicitly apply to higher education, IDEA provides a model of accommodation and accessibility that colleges and universities can incorporate. That said, IDEA would also leave some room for interpretation, an ambiguity that has created a fair amount of inconsistency regarding the accommodations made for students with disabilities, especially at the college level.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

This is where the American Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) comes in. Similar to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and similarly met with resistant protest and passionate support), the ADA makes discrimination against people with disabilities by agencies, businesses, and schools illegal. Because the Rehabilitation Act applies to entities that are part of the government or receive federal funding, it left businesses and organizations not associated with the federal government off the hook from its protective measures. The ADA picks up where the Rehabilitation Act left off, extending its reach to the private sector, and requiring public businesses and organizations (with more than 15 employees) to make “reasonable accommodations” for those with disabilities. This would include accommodations such wheelchair accessibility and handicapped-reserved parking spots, however the phrase “reasonable accommodation” has also given way to various interpretations, and a consequent inconsistency in the actual implementation of these responsibilities.

Key Amendments to the ADA

In 2008, the ADA was amended to include a broader definition of disability. From section 12102, a disability is understood as, “A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits on or more major life activities . . . ” It is important to note that alongside physical disabilities and learning disabilities, this definition includes mental illness, a category that is often overlooked as a form of disability. It is also important to note that these conditions do not have to be ongoing or permanent, and that the law may even apply to an individual that perceives having, or is being treated for a disability, even if this disability is not practically disabling. For example, someone cannot be discriminated against for having a physical disfigurement, such as severe burn scars.

Know Your Rights

What all of the above means for college students is that, as long as you follow the application process and meet the qualifications for admission, you cannot be denied admission based on a disclosed disability. It also means that if you provide disclosure of a documented disability, the institution must provide reasonable accommodations so as to make sure that you can earn your education on a level playing field.

No student is required to disclose information regarding a disability, but should you choose to do so (with documentation from a licensed medical professional), colleges must take your disability into account. Students who do not disclose their disabilities cannot later bring a lawsuit against the college for discriminatory practices, so it is important that if you want accommodations in any form, you make your disability and your needs known.

Accommodations vary based on individual needs. This includes services such as providing extended time for exams or paper submissions, wheelchair accessibility to campus buildings, accessible campus housing, personal note-takers or transcribers, and service animals. Again though, it’s important to note that ambiguity in the meaning of “reasonable accommodation” can give colleges a wide latitude, and limit your legal recourse. Second, colleges can refuse accommodation requests in some instances, such as if the accommodation would put an excessive financial or administrative strain on the college, or if the accommodation would change the curriculum or provide an unfair advantage.

In response to the ADA and Rehabilitation Act, many colleges now have disability resource offices and centers designed to help students get the accommodations they need. Large and wealthy colleges also often provide a range of services that assist all students, such as counseling services, and tutoring. Some especially progressive and well-funded schools offer programs that provide students with accommodations like assistive devices and personal note takers.

If you are a disabled student, it is important to understand the laws governing disability accommodation and discrimination in school, as well as in society as a whole. We encourage you to familiarize yourself with the legislation, and if you are at a school or considering attending a school, get in touch with their disabilities resources office regarding appropriate accommodations. Know your rights, and don’t be afraid to seek them out. No one should be deprived of a quality education because of disability, and that includes earning a degree.

For more tips and resources, return to our Guide to Learning Accommodations and Online College.

If you’re interested in working as a legal advocate, a disabilities attorney, or a lawmaker, consider a degree in legal studies or public administration: