Disability Laws and the Implications for Post-Secondary Institutions

There are three laws, which ensure the civil rights of people with disabilities; The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. All three are outlined below, with emphasis on the Rehabilitation Act, Section 504, the law which has the largest impact on colleges and universities servicing individuals with disabilities.


An individual with a disability is defined as a person who: 1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities; or 2) has a record of such impairment; or 3) is regarded as having such impairment. The ADA of 1990 prohibits discrimination solely on the basis of disability in employment, public services, and accommodations. The person must be otherwise qualified for the program, service, or job.

The ADA details administrative requirements, complaint procedures, and the consequences for non-compliance related to both services and employment. The ADA requires provision of reasonable accommodations for eligible students across educational activities and settings. Reasonable accommodations may include, but are not limited to: the redesigning of equipment; the provision of written media in alternative formats; the modification of tests and test-taking; the redesigning of services to accessible locations; the altering of existing facilities; and the adherence to accessibility guidelines for new facilities.

People with disabilities have the same remedies that are available under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended in 1991, thus individuals who are discriminated against may file a complaint with the relevant federal agency or sue in federal court. Enforcement agencies, such as the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), encourage informal mediation and voluntary compliance.


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides federal financial assistance to state and local education agencies to guarantee special education and related services to eligible students with disabilities aged birth to 22. This law governs how students are educated in pre-school, elementary school, and high school. It places the burden of meeting student needs on the school system and requires the development of individualized education plans (IEPs) for each eligible child each year they attend school.

This act is relevant to post-secondary institutions because it creates expectations from students and parents about how the needs of incoming college students with disabilities will be met. While it is not important that colleges understand IDEA in detail, it is important to understand how different IDEA is from either the ADA or Section 504. Section 504 requires that post-secondary institutions must ensure that their practices meet legal requirements. It is up to each individual student to file a complaint if his/her civil rights have been violated. The 13 specific categories of disability include autism, deafness, deaf-blindness, hearing impairments, mental retardation, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairments, other health impairments, serious emotional disturbance, specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, traumatic brain injury, and visual impairment.


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs, public and private, that receive federal financial assistance. Any person who: 1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; 2) has a record of such an impairment, or 3) is regarded as having such an impairment may qualify for disability services under this law. Major life activities include walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, caring for oneself, and performing manual tasks. Section 504 covers institutions regardless of whether they have open door enrollment policies, selective or competitive admissions practices.

The Educational Implications of Section 504

Although no brief overview can substitute for a careful study of Section 504 regulations, we can discuss three of the most substantial implications of this law for higher education.
Firstly, institutions are now required to make all programs and services physically accessible to all students. This requirement means that students with disabilities must be able to participate fully in laboratory work and field study, and benefit from library services, athletic programs, and residence life. Program accessibility may be achieved by relocating classes, offering services in alternate locations, modifying buildings, and so on.

Secondly, institutions are responsible for providing auxiliary aids, such as readers, note takers and appropriate equipment to ensure the participation of students with disabilities in college classes and activities.

Thirdly, institutions must accommodate the academic participation of qualified students with disabilities. Accommodations may include adapting the way a course is taught, allowing the student to substitute certain course requirements, or adapting testing and assessment procedures for students with disabilities where a need is indicated.

Section 504 is applicable to all post-secondary educational programs and activities which receive financial assistance. In brief, colleges and universities must be free from discrimination in their recruitment, admissions, and treatment of students with disabilities. 

Under the provisions of Section 504, a college or university may not:

  • Limit the number of students with disabilities admitted to the college;
  • Make pre-admission inquiries as to whether or not an applicant has a disability; 
  • Use admission tests or criteria that inadequately measure the academic level of visually impaired, hearing impaired, or otherwise disabled applicants because special provisions were not made for them;
  • Exclude a student with a disability from any course of study solely on the basis of his/her disability;
  • Advise or counsel students with disabilities towards a more restrictive career than non-disabled students, unless such advice or counsel is based on strict licensing or certification requirements in a profession;
  • Measure student achievement using modes that adversely discriminate against students with disabilities;
  • Institute prohibitive rules (such as the barring of tape recorders or other auxiliary aids) that may adversely affect the performance of students with disabilities.

Based on the provisions of Section 504, colleges and universities could be required to:

  • Extend the time permitted for a student with a disability to earn a degree;
  • Modify teaching methods and examinations to meet the needs of students with disabilities;
  • Develop course substitutions or waivers for students with disabilities;
  • Ensure the availability of such learning aids as tape players and word processors for students with disabilities.

Given these provisions, post-secondary institutions may determine policies regarding who they will and will not serve. To do this, the institution will need to determine what it will and will not accept to document disability in order to authorize services. It becomes clear then that it is most important for institutions to develop policies and establish required documentation to access services.

Faculty Handbook: Part II