The Law and Disabilities

Congress enacted the "Rehabilitation Act of 1973" and the "Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990"(ADA) in order to ensure the rights of those with disabilities. These laws require educational institutions to reasonably accommodate a qualified individual with a disability when appropriate documentation is provided.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 states:

"No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States...shall, solely by reason of...handicap, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."


The ADAA stands for The American with Disabilities Act Amendments of 2008, which retains the ADA's basic definition of "disability" as an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. However, it changes the way that these statutory terms should be interpreted in several ways. Most significantly, the Act:

  • directs Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to revise that portion of its regulations defining the term "substantially limits";
  • expands the definition of "major life activities" by including two non-exhaustive lists:
    • the first list includes many activities that the EEOC has recognized (e.g., walking) as well as activities that EEOC has not specifically recognized (e.g., reading, bending, and communicating);
    • the second list includes major bodily functions (e.g., "functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions");
  • states that mitigating measures other than "ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses" shall not be considered in assessing whether an individual has a disability;
  • clarifies that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active;
  • changes the definition of "regarded as" so that it no longer requires a showing that the employer perceived the individual to be substantially limited in a major life activity, and instead says that an applicant or employee is "regarded as" disabled if he or she is subject to an action prohibited by the ADA (e.g., failure to hire or termination) based on an impairment that is not transitory and minor;
  • provides that individuals covered only under the "regarded as" prong are not entitled to reasonable accommodation.

Who is protected under the law?

A "handicapped person" means any "person 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 an impairment, or (iii) is regarded as having such an impairment."

A "qualified handicapped person" is defined as one who meets the requisite academic and technical standards required for admission or participation in the postsecondary institution's programs or activities. Section 504 protects the civil rights of individuals who are qualified to participate and who have disabilities.

How these Laws Apply to Higher Education

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 were designed to ensure that colleges and universities are free from discrimination in their recruitment, admission, and treatment of students.

In the application of both laws, students with disabilities must be qualified to participate in University activities. A qualified student with a disability is one who meets the admission and essential eligibility requirements of a program or service.

Individuals who pose a direct threat to their own health or safety or the health or safety of others will not be considered qualified.

The law requires higher education institutions to ensure that all programs, services, or facilities are accessible to or usable by persons with disabilities. The law does NOT require:

  • making each facility accessible if alternatives are effective
  • a fundamental alteration of programs or services
  • undue financial or administrative burden.

The University is under no obligation to change academic requirements which the University, programs, or majors "can demonstrate are essential to the program of instruction…or to any direct licensing requirement."

The University does not have to provide personal attendants, individually prescribed devices, readers for personal use or study, or other devices or services of a personal nature, such as tutoring or typing (United States Office of Civil Rights, July, 2002).

The institution must provide auxiliary aids to ensure the participation of students in college classes and activities and must accommodate the academic participation of qualified students with disabilities.

The law does not require special treatment of students with disabilities, but does require that students be given the opportunity for equal participation in the University's programs. This is done by providing to eligible and qualified students appropriate academic adjustments and auxiliary aids necessary to facilitate the students' fullest possible participation in the University's academic programs.