Even though many of us know that making it possible for students with disabilities to access higher education is an ethical thing to do, post-secondary educators should be aware of the exact legal mandates that explain the rights of individuals with disabilities.
Rehabilitation Act of 1973
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was enacted to make sure that any program or activity that receives federal funding did not discriminate against individuals with a disability. In this context, “a disability” is defined as a physical or mental impairment that “ substantially limits one or more major life activities”. At the time this included walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, caring for oneself and performance of manual tasks. Recently the following have been added to the list: sleeping, reading, concentrating, thinking, and communicating. [In regard to education, the student must be "otherwise qualified" to participate in college.]
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
Many provisions of Section 504 were extended to public and private companies who do not receive federal funding. It states “no otherwise qualified individual with a disability shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity.” Accessibility is also determined to be the responsibility of the service or program. The key is equal access.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act amended August 7, 1998
We are now responsible for making all information, including that provided electronically and with information technology to be accessible to, and usable by, people with disabilities. A few examples that impact educators include the need to have web sites or electronic information that can be accessed by visually-impaired students through speech output systems and the need to have all video clips captioned.
In 1977, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare established guidelines for implementing Section 504.
Case law has continued to contribute to guidelines for considering accommodation requests. These regulations include the following points:
- Services provided to individuals with disabilities should be as effective as those provided to others.
- There is no obligation to ensure identical results or levels of achievement.
- They must be given equal opportunity to gain the same results or levels of achievement.
- Postsecondary institutions are not required to compromise on requirements that are essential to the program or course of instruction or that are directly related to licensing requirements.
If there is content or a process that is not essential to the evaluation of mastery of a course, the postsecondary institution must alter methods of evaluation in order to best ensure that test results reflect student achievement rather than areas of disability.