May 25 — 5:11 pm, 2011

College-going students with disabilities must know their rights before they enroll

Going to college is filled with academic and social challenges. Those issues can be compounded for students with disabilities if they are limited in their access to programs, services, and activities.

Colleges and universities are prohibited from discriminating against students with disabilities in all aspects of their college-going experience, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (RA). "Discrimination" includes the refusal to provide reasonable accommodations.

The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, a statewide nonprofit that protects the civil rights of adults and children with disabilities, helps students understand the law so that their transition to college is smooth.

The most frequent areas in which students can request accommodations include:

  • Tests: The ADA and RA require that colleges and universities offer tests in a place and manner accessible to persons with disabilities. For example, a college may be required to provide extra time on tests; provide tests in an accessible format such as in Braille or large print; provide qualified readers for individuals with visual impairments; or provide taped tests or interpreters for the hearing-impaired.
  • Course work: Institutions are also required to provide appropriate course accommodations, including providing extra time to complete course requirements, substituting specific course requirements, or providing auxiliary aids and services, including taped texts, note takers, interpreters, readers, and specialized computer equipment.
  • Physical facilities: Schools must provide accessible facilities to ensure equal access to students with mobility disabilities, including, in certain situations, making physical accessibility improvements to existing facilities. This can include such things as wheelchair ramps, wider doorways, and accessible doors that open automatically. The ADA and RA require that schools make all newly constructed facilities and alterations to existing facilities accessible for persons with disabilities. Comparable, convenient, and accessible housing for students with disabilities at the same cost as to others must also be provided.

Under the ADA and RA, students with disabilities have an obligation to inform the institution that they have a disability and that they need an accommodation for their disability. While a student can request an accommodation at any time, it is best to make a request as soon as possible after admission to allow time for the school to review it and arrange for the appropriate accommodations. Schools can require a student to provide reasonable documentation of the disability and the need for an accommodation before granting a request. However, once a need for an accommodation is established, the school cannot charge the student with a disability for the costs associated with providing it.

What are the limitations on accommodation requests? Under the ADA and RA, colleges and universities are not required to provide accommodations that would result in an undue burden, i.e. "significant difficulty or expense." However, the burden is on the school to demonstrate that a requested accommodation would cause a hardship. Even if a school can demonstrate a hardship, the school still has an obligation to work with the student to identify an alternative accommodation that would not pose such a hardship.

Colleges and universities are not required to provide accommodations that would alter the essential nature of their program or services. For example, a college is not required to lower test scores or to waive essential course requirements for students with disabilities.

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