Redefining the Classroom

Summary of Applicable Laws

There are three principal federal laws which affect individuals with disabilities transitioning from high school to post-secondary environments of work and/or education. These are 1) The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) , 2) The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and 3) Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (§504). In addition, there are state statutes which impact this group.

IDEA is the federal special education law. Initially passed in 1975, it places an affirmative obligation on K-12 school districts to locate, identify, and serve children with disabilities from age 3 through 21 or high school graduation. IDEA provides federal funding to schools to provide services to children with disabilities. IDEA applies only to individuals who meet the criteria for one or more specific conditions or impairments and who, because of the impairment, require special education and related services.

The ADA and §504 differ significantly from IDEA. They are civil rights legislation. The focus of each is to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. Section 504 applies to entities that receive federal funds, including high schools, colleges, and universities. While the basic prohibition against discrimination on the basis of disability is the same under the ADA and §504, the ADA has a broader coverage. It is not limited to only those organizations and institutions that receive federal funds.

Unlike the IDEA, the ADA and §504 do NOT provide funding for accommodations and services.  Some individuals in public school may not be eligible under IDEA but may be protected by §504 and the ADA. Section 504 and the ADA prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. In the words of §504: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability…shall, solely by reason of her or his 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.”

An individual with a disability is broadly defined as an individual who “(i) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person’s major life activities; (ii) has a record of such impairment; or (iii) is regarded as having such an impairment.”Major life activities means “functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.” Generally, the major life activity must relate to access, or participation in, the program or activity for which accommodations are sought. In the educational environment, the major life activity most considered is learning. The individual’s impairment typically must affect learning in such situations.

There is no obligation under ADA and §504 for organizations to actively seek out individuals with disabilities. There is an obligation to ensure that programs and services of the school, college, or university are accessible to the individual with a disability. This can be an issue of providing physical accessibility or providing aids and services to enable the individual to benefit from the program. The individual with a disability is required to make the organization aware of the existence of a disability.

When the organization becomes aware that an individual has a disability, the organization determines the accommodations it will provide. The organization will usually request documentation supporting the current existence of a disability and its impact on the individual. The individual is responsible for providing the needed documentation.When an individual with a disability disagrees with the sufficiency or appropriateness of the accommodations provided, there are procedures within the organization and through external enforcement to appeal the decisions of the organization.

Enforcement of §504 is done by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education. The ADA is enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice.An individual is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act when the individual has an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.

In an academic setting, the disorder must substantially limit a student’s ability to participate equally in activities associated with learning and/or demonstration of specific skills or knowledge. These activities may include but are not limited to reading, writing, note-taking, listening, seeing, test-taking, performing manual/motor-based skills, class attendance, or participation in laboratory activities.

Unlike the K-12 system, post secondary institutions do not have an affirmative duty to identify students with disabilities. Rather, students are responsible for disclosing the presence of a disability, providing adequate disability documentation to the institution, and requesting accommodations in a timely manner. They also are responsible for abiding by the accommodation procedures of the specific institution in which they are enrolled.

The purpose of disability-related accommodations also changes in a post secondary setting. The educational institution becomes responsible for providing an opportunity for a student’s educational success, rather than meeting an obligation to provide a free and appropriate education (FAPE). Accommodations are customized for each student to the extent that the specific impact of the disability is appropriately accommodated. Post secondary disability service providers are responsible for assessing eligibility for services that provide equal access to educational activities. This assessment has three components: disability documentation, accommodation history, and an intake process with the disability services office.

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