DART Toolkit II: Legal Issues — ADA Basics

General Information

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), patterned after Section 504, also protects qualified persons with disabilities from discrimination in many areas of postsecondary education including admission, academics and research. However, the ADA applies to all postsecondary educational programs even if such programs do not receive federal financial assistance.

Entities Protected Under the ADA

Student working on laptopAny individual who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; has a record of having such an impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment is protected by the law, as discrimination has many faces. Most faculty, however, will find themselves dealing with students who meet the first prong of the definition — an impairment which presents a substantial limitation to a major life activity.

Major Requirements Under the ADA

Given legal mandates under the ADA, postsecondary institutions must make reasonable accommodations (please check back for future Toolkit III updates, for a more complete description and analysis) in order to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in courses, programs, and activities. This includes extracurricular activities. These accommodations can be in the form of academic adjustments or modifications such as extended time for test taking or completing course work; substitution of specific courses to meet degree requirements; modification of test taking or performance evaluations so as not to discriminate against a person’s sensory, speaking or motor impairments, unless that is what is being tested. Accommodations can also take the shape of auxiliary aids and services such as qualified sign language interpreters, note takers, readers, braille, large print, and electronic formats of print materials, and adaptive equipment.

Campus signageColleges and universities do not have to provide accommodations that would “fundamentally alter” the educational program or academic requirements that are essential to a program of study or to fulfill licensing requirements. The determination of what is a fundamental alteration, however, is one which requires specific steps and a reasoned, determinative process on the part of the campus community, and necessitates that colleges and universities question their notions of what is truly fundamental and provide for alternate methods of achieving the results intended by the educational program.

By familiarizing yourself with such federal disability laws as the ADA, knowing your own institutional policies on disability and providing a positive, welcoming and encouraging arena for your students with disabilities, you can begin to create an environment where differences are not viewed as negative impediments and where individual strengths are recognized. As a training director or faculty member, you are an integral part of your institution’s efforts to comply with these laws and to promote equal opportunities, raise aspirations and challenge stereotypes.

Suggested Dos and Don’ts
Do Don’t
  • Confer with the student with a disability as to the accommodations most appropriate for him/her.
  • Make assumptions about a student’s ability to work in a particular field. Most often, concerns that students may not be able to succeed are based on fears and assumptions, not facts. Remember too, that employers are also required to comply with the ADA.
  • Treat students with disabilities with the same courtesies you would afford to other students.
  • Engage in philosophical debates about “fairness” to other, nondisabled students, or whether providing accommodations somehow violates your academic freedom. These arguments are unavailing for several reasons. First, philosophical debates about whether and how equal educational opportunities are provided to students with disabilities are legally meaningless. Congress has determined how we as a society should address equal access to education by passing federal civil rights statutes protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, without adversely impacting those without disabilities. Congress has been joined in this effort by most state legislatures as well. Second, academic freedom is not preemptive of federal civil rights statutes.
  • Respect the privacy of students with disabilities. They need not disclose their disability to fellow students. While they must disclose disability to a designated official at your college in order to access accommodations, this does not require disclosure to everyone. Treat disability information which has been disclosed to you as confidential.
  • Decide not to provide reasonable accommodations, or the academic adjustments which have been approved by the institution’s designee. You may subject your institution or yourself to liability.
  • Assist students in following the university’s policies, such as possible requirements that all requests for accommodation be lodged with the Disability Services office and not individual faculty members alone. This protects students, faculty and the institution by ensuring consistency and takes much of the burden off individual faculty members, who are often ill-equipped to determine whether an accommodation is appropriate or how to provide it. Violations have been found in cases where faculty members have not followed institutional policies.
  • Refuse to permit students to tape record lectures as an accommodation. General policies which permit instructors to refuse the use of tape recorders, without providing for their use by students with disabilities, are legally insufficient.
  • Refuse to provide copies of handouts, or orally describe information written on the chalkboard, or face the class when referring to something written on the chalkboard, etc., if these accommodations have been determined to be appropriate for a student.
  • Refuse to provide extended time for tests on the mistaken assumption that doing so would require that all students be given additional time.
  • Refuse to provide accommodations until you have personally evaluated a student’s documentation of disability. Eligibility for services under the ADA is the job of the disability services personnel, not the faculty.

Americans with Disabilities Act. (1990). Public Law 101-336. 42 U.S.C. 12111, 12112.

LRP Publications. (May, 1999). Attorneys create accessibility guidelines to assure internship opportunities. Disability Compliance for Higher Education, 4(10) 16.

LRP Publications. (May, 1999). Community Colleges and the ADA: How to Make Sure OCR Doesn’t Come  Knocking on Your Door. Disability Compliance for Higher Education, 4(10) 16.

Nondiscrimination in Higher Education — What’s the Law? NETAC Teacher Tipsheet, 1999.

Scott, S. S., Wells, S., & Hanebrink, S. (1997). Educating college students with disabilities: What academic  and fieldwork educators need to know. American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc.

**DISCLAIMER: The goal of this webpage is to provide a general overview of major disability federal statutes, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, and is intended to provide only general, nonspecific legal information. This website and these articles are not legal advice and are not intended as legal advice.