Knowing Your Legal Rights

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What Are The Main Federal Laws about Disability?

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) are the two most commonly cited disability-specific laws protecting the rights of people, including students, with disabilities:

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), states: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Section 504 requires that higher education programs must support all students to be able to demonstrate what they have learned in ways that do not discriminate against qualified students with disabilities. This means that instructors in higher education institutions must, when it is appropriate, provide accommodations to students with disabilities to ensure they have an equal opportunity to access their educational community and demonstrate their skills.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) protects students with disabilities from discrimination in all higher education institutions whether or not the institution receives federal funds. Title II applies to state-funded schools, such as universities, community colleges and vocational schools, while Title III applies to private colleges.

How Do These Laws Work for Me in Higher Education?

Maybe you received accommodations for your disability in high school. If you did, those supports were set up through the federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). If you were eligible for special education, a team of people in your school, including your teacher(s) and your parents/guardians, got together to figure out the supports and accommodations you needed. This was called an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and it guided all your teachers and you in helping you be successful in school.

In college accommodations are governed by different laws. There are no IEPs. You have to prove that you are eligible for accommodations all over again in order to get supports. Nobody is going to come find you and tell you to get help.You have to go and ask for it.

You will find that help at an office set up on campus to support students with disabilities. This office might go by different names, such as “Access Center.” Here we will call it your Disability Support Service Office, or DSS.

When you first enroll at a higher education institution you have to take the initiative to go to the DSS Office and follow the instructions they have to prove that you are eligible for accommodations. This process is different at each school.

You may need to get a new diagnosis from your doctor or other professional, to certify that you have a disability. Recently, colleges have started accepting a “Summary of Performance” as evidence of eligibility, which high schools are supposed to develop when students with disabilities are getting ready to graduate. This summary talks about supports the student will need in future higher education or employment settings.

On the other hand, maybe nobody ever figured out that you have a disability when you were in elementary or high school. Or, maybe you got your disability later in life through an injury or illness. Maybe it has just been a long time since you have been in high school. No matter why–you might have become aware that you are struggling in your classes. Perhaps one of your teachers suggested that you could get some help from the DSS on your campus. In any case, you will need to start with the DSS office and prove that you have an eligible disability before you can get accommodations.

Once you are at your DSS office, what then? They will help you figure out if you are eligible for accommodations and help you complete the paperwork needed to certify your eligibility. You need this to show your teachers you have a right to accommodations.

  • In many places, the DSS Office staff member will help you through the whole process, including talking to your teachers for you and telling them what accommodations you need. In other colleges, you are more on your own and will be expected to talk with each of your teachers to get your accommodations. In those colleges, the DSS Office staff member steps in only if the teacher has questions. In either case, it is important that you understand what is going on. For example, you need to be ready to talk with your teacher further if you think you might need more support as the semester goes on.