Rights of Primary and Secondary Students
One of the central laws that provides protection from discrimination of school-age children who have a disability is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This federal law applies to programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.
This law requires school districts to provide a free and appropriate public education to disabled students in the jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of their disability. This includes provisions for regular or special education. It also applies to providing individual students’ educational needs by supplying aids and services that allow disabled students to have their needs fulfilled in the same manner as students without disabilities.
In order for the 504 protects to be triggered, a student must have an impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity, have a record of such an impairment or be regarded as having an impairment of that nature. An impairment that substantially limits a major life activity can include one that affects walking, seeing, speaking, eating, reading, concentrating, communicating, breathing, learning, working, hearing or grooming. Section 504 does not contain an exhaustive list of each major life activity or all impairments that can trigger its protections.
Services for 504 Students
Students who have disabilities as defined under Section 504 are provided with a number of services and aids to help them have their educational needs met. This may include education in regular classrooms, education with supplementary services in the regular classroom and/or education in special education classrooms.
Section 504 requires school districts to establish procedures to help them evaluate students who need these services. Such evaluation must occur before the classification of a student as one who has a disability. Tests and other evaluative efforts must be tailored to evaluate the areas of educational need for the individual student.
Rights of Post-Secondary Students
Section 504 also concerns post-secondary programs that receive federal funds. Such colleges and universities cannot discriminate against students on the basis of disability. Instead, these entities must ensure that their programs are accessible to students with disabilities.
Methods of Compliance
Colleges and universities can comply with accessibility requirements in a number of ways. One way is to provide architectural access to students. Buildings that were erected before June 3, 1977 do not have to be accessible if the school can ensure that students with disabilities can still enjoy the full range of programs offered by going to a separate, accessible building. However, if the building was constructed or altered after this date, the college or university must comply with accessibility requirements. In any event, programs and services must be provided in an integrated manner.
If housing is provided to students, accessible housing must be provided to students with disabilities. Likewise, if transportation services are provided to students without disabilities, these services must be accessible by students with disabilities.
Other Forms of Compliance
Colleges and universities also comply with accessibility requirements by providing aids and services to students that are necessary for effective communication. Another compliance measure is to modify practices, procedures and policies.
Example Academic Adjustments
Colleges and universities that receive federal assistance must provide academic adjustments that ensure that disabled students have an equal opportunity to participate in classes, programs and extracurricular activities. Some examples of acceptable adjustments include giving students additional time to complete exams, course work or to graduate. Colleges and universities may also substitute nonessential courses for degree requirements.
Tape recording classes, adapting course instruction and modifying test-taking procedures are a few other ways that colleges and universities can make their programs accessible to students with disabilities.
Colleges and universities must also provide auxiliary aids and services to students with disabilities. These aids and services include interpreters, notetakers, written materials, closed caption decoders, taped texts, large print and Brailled materials, audio recordings and modification of equipment.
Colleges or universities are not required to provide tutoring services for disabled students above what they provide for nondisabled students. Additionally, the college or university can choose in what manner auxiliary aids or services will be provided to disabled students as long as the manner is one which provides the student with equal opportunity.
A college or university does not have to provide an academic adjustment or an auxiliary aid or service if doing so would “fundamentally alter the nature of the program” or when doing so would cause a significant difficulty or expense.
Colleges and universities can request that a disabled student provide documentation to prove that he or she has a disability. This may not be necessary if the disability is apparent. This step allows the college or university to establish the validity of a request for accommodations and to determine which accommodations are required.
Colleges and universities must inform students of the relevant nondiscrimination requirements under law. They must also adopt grievance procedures that provide students with due process and must have a coordinator who handles Section 504 compliance matters.