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Disability Laws in Post-Secondary Education

Individuals with disabilities are entitled to equal access to post-secondary programs.  There are two laws that protect persons with disabilities in post-secondary education:  The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. 

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is regarded as the first civil rights legislation on the national level for people with disabilities.  Specifically, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in any program or activity offered by an institution receiving federal funds.  Section 504 states:

No otherwise qualified person with a disability in the United States…shall, solely on the basis of disability, be denied access to, or the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity provided by any institution receiving federal financial assistance.

A student with a disability is considered “otherwise qualified” when he/she meets the same academic requirements and standards as non-disabled students.  These requirements and standards must be considered necessary to maintain the integrity of a course, program or college policy.  For example, a student with a disability is required to meet the instructor’s expectations for all students regarding class participation, assignment/project due dates, work standards, and ability to demonstrate acquired knowledge.

The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities.  The ADA is designed to remove barriers which prevent qualified individuals with disabilities from enjoying the same opportunities that are available to persons without disabilities.  According to the ADA a student with a disability is someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity such as learning, speaking, seeing, hearing, breathing, walking, caring for oneself or performing manual tasks.

The term “substantially limits” means being unable to perform a major life activity, or being significantly restricted as to the condition, manner or duration under which a major life activity can be performed, in comparison to the average person or most people.

The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008 took effect January 1, 2009 and clarifies who is covered by the law’s protection.  The ADAAA expanded the definition of “disability” to include impairments in major life activities such as eating, sleeping, standing, lifting, reading, bending, thinking, concentrating, communicating, and working, having a history of such a condition or a condition which may be considered by others as substantially limiting.  The amendment also states that mitigating measures, including assistive devices, auxiliary aids, accommodations, medical therapies and supplies have no bearing in determining whether a disability qualifies under the law.