Qualified individuals with disabilities enrolled in colleges and universities are protected against discrimination under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Section 504 applies any program receiving federal financial assistance, meaning it covers nearly all colleges and universities, including private and/or religious colleges and universities. The ADA does not cover religious colleges and universities.
A qualified individual with a disability is one who meets the required standards for admission or participation in the educational program or activity with or without reasonable accommodations. The accommodation may not fundamentally alter the program, activity, or service.
The requirements of colleges or universities include:
- Changing academic requirements, for example extending the length of time permitted for the completion of degree requirements;
- Not enforcing rules against students with disabilities, for example not enforcing a rule prohibiting tape recorders in classrooms against a student with a disability;
- Altering the method of evaluating students’ academic achievement, for example assessing a student who cannot use her hands with an oral exam, rather than a written exam;
- Providing students with auxiliary aids and services, including note takers, taped texts, interpreters, and adapted equipment; and
- Providing accessible housing at the same cost as provided to nondisabled students.
Colleges and universities may refuse to provide accommodations only if the accommodation would create an undue financial or administrative burden, fundamentally alter the academic program, or if the accommodation is of a personal nature.
One major difference between elementary/secondary school and higher education is that when the student is enrolled in college, the student bears the burden of disclosing the disability and requesting accommodations from the school. Colleges and universities do not have an affirmative obligation to identify students with disabilities.
The requirements for demonstrating the need for a reasonable accommodation differ based on the school. A school may require proof of the disability from a medical professional.
Some examples of discrimination based on disability include:
- Denying a qualified student with a disability admission to a university because of the student’s disability;
- Excluding a qualified student with a disability from a specific course or course of study because of the student’s disability;
- Refusing to provide a qualified student with a disability with accessible housing when the university provides housing to nondisabled students; and
- Counseling qualified students with disabilities towards more restrictive career options than nondisabled students with similar interests and abilities.