Legal Issues

MODULE GOAL(S): This module is designed to increase your knowledge about your legal rights in the college and university setting. This includes rights to accommodations, rights to access the campus environment and the laws that protect their rights. These include:

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation act
  • The Higher Education Act.


  1. Determine what legal rights are and explain why they are important to you.
  2. Explain your rights to an education in the college setting.
  3. Determine the responsibilities of postsecondary institutions.
  4. Explain how laws protect your rights to education in the college setting.
  5. Determine how you can access the services that you are entitled to under the law.  


Over the past ten years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of students with disabilities attending colleges and universities. A major reason for this is that students now have many legal rights that help them to attend college and receive supports they need to be successful. While you are in high school, you, your parents, and your teachers worked together to understand how education laws applied to you and to make sure their provisions are used to your advantage. Once you left school, however, it was up to you to make sure that schools and community agencies are providing the rights, protection, and benefits you are entitled to under the law. It is essential that you understand the basics of these laws so that you are aware of the services that you are entitled to receive while you are in college and know how to obtain them.

Students with disabilities and their parents do not generally know a lot about the differences in the rights and responsibilities of schools and students as they move from high school to college. As a result, students may be surprised rather than prepared for the differences between the two levels of education – high school and college. It is vital that you gain the knowledge and skills to advocate for your rights in moving ahead with your education as an adult.


Several questions are important as you begin to explore attending college. These are:

  1. What are legal rights and why are they important for you?
  2. What rights do you have in the college setting?
  3. What are the responsibilities of postsecondary institutions?
  4. How do the laws protect your rights to education in the college setting?
  5. How can you access the services that you are entitled to under the law?

What are legal rights and why are they important to you?

Many college students like you, with and without disabilities, are faced with challenges as they leave high school. Various laws help you to overcome a variety of barriers to accessing the university campus and to getting services you need. These laws are made up of a combination of federal government statutes and court cases. Statutes are laws passed by legislators who write them to protect you and reduce barriers. Court cases are decisions made by the court system when someone has a dispute about a law or feels that they have not received the services to which they are entitled.

Students with disabilities face several barriers as they prepare for and participate in postsecondary education. They may face architectural barriers if they have physical disabilities or use a wheelchair. Many students have learning disabilities that are not found until they are in the college setting. For many students, such a delay in finding out about the disability has cost years of services, and so it is even more important that they obtain supportive services on the college campus. Many students face less than friendly attitudes from their peers and professors about their abilities and their presence in classes. Often this is because they have not had experience with students with disabilities. For this reason, many students with disabilities choose to remain invisible because they are concerned about the stigma of accommodations. A stigma means that people have fixed ideas about people with disabilities, or they disapprove of the person and they reject them before they even know them. This is discrimination. Preparation for self-advocacy in high school, a welcoming attitude on the part of postsecondary institutions, and well informed faculty can reduce stigma, rejection and discrimination.

Many students with disabilities are unable to access technology in their homes. This lack of access to technology will get in the way of reaching your full potential in the college setting. Examples of technology related supports in postsecondary settings include the following:

  • accessible web-pages and instructional software,
  • accessible telephones,
  • scooters and wheelchairs,
  • alternative automobile controls,
  • environmental controls,
  • prostheses,
  • communication aids,
  • hand splints,
  • hearing aids, and
  • alternative input and output devices for computers.

Students must be prepared to advocate for their technological needs in the postsecondary setting.

These barriers are often greater for students with disabilities who are also culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD). CLD means that English is not their first language and they may have been raised in a family that speaks another language. These students are more likely to face language and social barriers and will have difficulty with standard English spoken and written information. These challenges may contribute to their risk of failing classes or early dropout.

Finally, an important support that can affect your persistence and ‘staying-power’ in college is the lack of awareness of faculty members of the needs of students with disabilities and their responsibility for making accommodations. Failure to make needed accommodations can lead to invite misunderstanding or conflict that could lead to dropping out or to adversarial relationships with the faculty member or the college. For all these reasons, students with disabilities need special supports, accommodations and professional guidance in the college setting. You have many rights to request accommodations and supports based on your disability.

How do your rights change as you move from the high school to the college setting?

What can you expect after high school? Once you graduate from high school, the special education law (Individuals With Disabilities Education act, or IDEA) will no longer be in effect to provide services to you. You will not be eligible for services provided by your high school and will not have an IEP. When students with disabilities leave the school, they must rely on the college and on adult services agencies to continue providing supportive services that may be needed in postsecondary education. Adult services may include Vocational Rehabilitation, mental health services, special transportation services, medically-related services, independent living services, and service coordination to access and obtain local services. But it is important to know that services provided through adult agencies are not entitlements.

What does is mean that they are “not entitlements”? It means that community agencies that serve students who have graduated from high school have various eligibility requirements. Because they have limited funding they cannot always offer services to everyone who is eligible. Applicants for services are placed on a waiting list. Plan for ongoing support before you leave high school in order to get the services you need when you need them. Gather information from state and federal agencies about existing programs; be aware of the different eligibility requirements; and meet agency staff personally.

Adult service agencies also provide employment related services. Examples of employment services include assistance in seeking competitive employment. However, if you have been receiving career or vocational services from Rehabilitation Services as part of your transition plan, you can continue to receive them. You will have an Individual Written Rehabilitation Plan (IWRP) and may be eligible for services such as employment assistance, postsecondary education, counseling, and vocational evaluation and assessment. And assuming you have reached the age of majority, adult services agencies such as Rehabilitation Services will now deal directly with you, rather than your parents. Age of majority means that your right to make educational decisions for yourself are transferred to you at age 18 (or 19 or 21 in some states) and you are no longer entitled for services through IDEA.

After you have reached your age of majority under IDEA, and decision making is turned over to you, you are still covered by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (see below). It is especially important to learn what protections they offer you as you prepare to embark on post secondary education or employment. Laws governing secondary and post-secondary settings are different. For students with disabilities, the laws governing special assistance in the postsecondary setting are different from those in secondary education and change students’ experiences in several ways:

  • While in high school decisions about your future are more likely to be made by your parents, teachers and other professionals, in the postsecondary setting your are responsible for disclosing your disability, providing documentation for your disability (the ‘proof’), and informing the college of your need for accommodations.
  • You make decisions about the services available; there is no professional team to decide for your.
  • Disability services personnel make decisions about services based on the reasonable accommodations requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and not on services prescribed by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
  • Students with disabilities often have to repeat the process of requesting accommodations each semester and often on a course-by-course basis, since different classes may require different accommodations (NCSET, 2003).

What Can I Expect in College?

Question: I am a high school senior with a learning disability and I have just been admitted to the college of my choice. Will the accommodations that were provided to me in high school under my IEP automatically be provided to me in college?

Answer: First of all, NO accommodations will be provided to you unless and until you identify yourself to be a student with a disability, and provide documentation of your disability. Once the proper administrator has been notified, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the college must provide reasonable and appropriate accommodations and academic adjustments that specifically address your known disability. By providing such accommodations, they afford you an equal opportunity to participate in the institution's programs, courses, and activities. However, the college is not required to provide accommodations just because they appear in your IEP, though that information can certainly be very helpful to Disability Support Service (DSS) coordinators as they develop your personal accommodations plan. In fact, DSS personnel may determine that some accommodations you received in high school substantially alter aspects of the curriculum, and are therefore not reasonable. They were actually ‘modifications’ to the curriculum. In short, it will be useful to refer to your IEP when discussing possible accommodations for college-level work, yet be prepared to consider alternative accommodations or adjustments in the event that some in the IEP are no longer available to you (HEATH, National Clearinghouse on Postsecondary Education for Individuals with Disabilities, 2004).  

What are the responsibilities of postsecondary institutions?

It is important that you are aware of your responsibilities and those of the college or university before you enroll. Your college may ask whether your can meet the academic and technical standards required for admission, but may not ask about a prospective student’s disabilities before they are admitted. As a prospective student you may voluntarily choose to provide an IEP with information about your disability. As an applicant you can request changes in admissions requirements related to standardized entrance examinations (e.g., SAT, GRE, etc.) if you can provide documentation from a qualified professional who evaluates and verifies the existence of a disability. The college is not required to pay for such evaluations, but they must inform students of their documentation requirements (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, 2007a). Generally students’ IEPs from elementary and secondary school are not adequate documentation of a disability, but assessment reports and a summary of your academic achievement may meet some documentation requirements.

Unlike elementary and secondary schools, once you are admitted, the college does not have a legal obligation to identify students with disabilities. To get the accommodations you need, you must identify yourself as having a disability and make a formal request for an academic accommodation or adjustment. Unlike school districts, colleges have no obligation to create individualized education programs. In making accommodations or academic adjustments, the college does not have to eliminate or lower its essential requirements or standards for student performance, or make any modifications that would result in a fundamental change in the program or activities being offered (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, 2007a, 2007b).

Can my college or university ever refuse to provide me with an accommodation I need?

Yes, the college can refuse to provide accommodations to you, but only under limited circumstances. Your school can refuse to provide you with an accommodation when they can show:

  • That providing the accommodation would be an undue financial or administrative burden;
  • That providing the accommodation would fundamentally alter their academic program;
  • That the requested accommodation is of a very personal or physical nature. For example, a college will not be required to supply a student with an assistant to help with toileting.

After you have requested a specific accommodation, your school may suggest an alternative accommodation or way to provide equal access. You do not have to accept the school’s suggested accommodation, but you should keep in mind that you are not entitled to “the best” accommodation - just an accommodation that will work.

How do I get an accommodation for my disability?

The process for getting accommodations will differ slightly from school to school. To find out what the process is at your school contact the Office of Disability Services (knows on some campuses as Disabled Student Services, or Disability Support Program, or Office of Student Services). Many colleges and universities also have an ADA or Section 504 Coordinator. If neither resource exists at your school, you can ask the Dean of Student Affairs or your academic advisor to explain the process for requesting accommodations. If you are not sure what specific type of accommodations you need, the Office of Disability Services and your doctors may be able to help you. If you are a client of the Department of Rehabilitation your rehabilitation counselor may also be able to help you.

It is always a good idea to make your accommodation request in writing. Make sure you identify yourself as a student with a disability, describe how your disability affects your participation in school (e.g., your learning, mobility, writing, ability to see, hear or understand the teacher), and identify the specific accommodations you need. Your request should also indicate how soon you would like to have a response to your request. If you do not receive a response within that time you should contact the Office of Disability Services to ask about the status of your request. If possible, go in person to talk with the advisor. If your request has been denied, then you may start appeal and complaint procedures. Applying for services involves the following steps:

  1. Meet with the Office of Disability Support Services to discuss your needs
  2. Provide current documentation of your disability
  3. Each semester, work with the Office of Disability Support Services to develop a service agreement that outlines the accommodations that will be provided for you during the semester.

The Office of Disability Support Services will communicate with your instructors about the accommodations that you are entitled to. They will also provide support for your instructors so that they can best help you.

Do you have to provide proof of my disability to get an accommodation? In most cases you will. Universities and colleges are only required to accommodate known disabilities. If your disability is not obvious and the school requests proof of your disability, you must provide it. To show that you are entitled to reasonable accommodations, it is best to get a letter from a medical professional who is familiar with you and your disability. Typically colleges require:

  • Identification of the nature and extent of the disability
  • Specific information about how the disability affects you and your ability to demonstrate your knowledge of material presented in the classroom

Documentation is usually provided by a physician, psychologist, learning disabilities specialist or rehabilitation counselor.

What should my doctor’s letter say to support my request for accommodations? To be effective, we suggest that your doctor’s letter include at least the following information (see attached sample letter):

  1. A statement of who your doctor is and what his/her credentials are, including any special qualifications he/she has for helping people with your specific type of disability. This statement should also include a description of where your doctor works and what his/her area of specialty is.
  2. A discussion of any tests, assessments and evaluations that your doctor performed on your behalf. Your doctor should identify any records or other materials reviewed as part of the testing process. Remember, the more specific your doctor is in the letter, the more effective the letter will be.
  3. A discussion of your disability-related impairments, as they relate to your ability to learn and participate in your educational program. Again, the more specific your doctor is, the more effective her letter will be.
  4. A description of your disability and identification of your specific diagnoses. This should include a discussion of how you meet diagnostic criteria, and the facts and observations upon which your diagnosis is based.
  5. A list of school accommodations that your doctor would recommend to help you overcome your disability-related impairments and be able to participate fully and equally in your educational program. Here too, the more specific your doctor can be, the more effective his/her letter will be.
  6. A discussion of how your doctor decided what accommodations to recommend for you, including a discussion of any prior experience he/she has had working with students with disabilities.

Is there a best time to request services? Actually, yes. You should request services before you begin your classes. For example, some services such as Braille or providing texts in alternative formats can take several weeks or even months depending on how available the readers are and the provisions the college have for producing Braille books. You should request support services as early as possible. Early requests will make it more likely that the accommodations you need will be available when you need them.

What laws protect you in college?

  •  How Does IDEA help you after high school? Your Passport to Postsecondary Education

 As stated earlier, when you move from high school to postsecondary, you no longer are entitled to special services as you were before. However, since 2004, schools are required to provide you (before you leave high school) with an “SOP”, or Summary of Functional Performance. A Summary of Functional Performance (SOP) requirement was added to IDEA 2004 to provide a transition bridge between the high school and post-high school environment. The SOP should include recommendations on how to assist you in meeting your postsecondary goals. The SOP also provides documentation of your disability which is necessary under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act to help establish your eligibility for reasonable accommodations and supports in postsecondary settings. It is also helpful in the Vocational Rehabilitation Comprehensive Assessment process to determine eligibility for VR services.

Developing the SOP may be the responsibility of the special educator or school psychologist, but coordination and participation of teachers, counselors and related services professionals is essential to gathering all relevant information on the student. This documentation is particularly important for secondary students preparing for transition because:

  1. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, not only requires postsecondary students to identify their own disability but also requires them to provide adequate documentation (‘proof’) of their disability in order to verify their eligibility for accommodations and services (a diagnosis of current disability; the date of the diagnosis, how the diagnosis was reached, credentials of the professional conducting the evaluation; how the disability affects a major life activity, and how the disability affects academic performance (Office of Civil Rights, 2002).
  2. Colleges have no requirements to identify students with disabilities or to provide testing services to assist students gain the documentation needed to determine a disability diagnosis.
  3. There are many differences between disability-related procedures and services in college compared to high school and different expectations for appropriate documentation between secondary and postsecondary education. For example, a two-year community college may accept an evaluation that has outdated assessment information as sufficient documentation, whereas a four-year university may require up-to-date psycho-educational test battery including current (within three years) IQ and achievement tests.
  4. Postsecondary institutions, testing agencies (e.g., Educational Testing Service, The College Board), and employers have the need to assure that only qualified individuals with disabilities receive accommodations and supports.
  5. Colleges and employers do not typically accept an Individualized Education Program (IEP) from a high school as documentation of a disability or an academic accommodation.

While colleges and universities do not typically accept an Individualized Education Program (IEP) from a high school as documentation of a disability, they may use high school testing results, documented in the summary of performance if the information is current and disability-specific. For example, after consultation with the college, a student with a learning disability might submit the psycho-educational evaluation from eleventh grade as documentation of the learning disability. It is very important that students collect and maintain their high school records and summary of performance for the purposes of disability documentation in the future (Hart, Zafft & Zimbrich, 2001; Shaw, 2006; Shaw & Dukes, 2001).

As an important part of transition to college, you can benefit from the recommendations of your teachers and other secondary personnel on how your can be assisted in meeting your postsecondary goals. If you are planning to enroll in a two or four college or technical school, you can ask a guidance counselor to help you to:

  • select colleges,
  • apply for and negotiate for support services,
  • get the right documentation of your disability required by those colleges,
  • find information on how to access campus resources,
  • help you prepare for college interviews,
  • discuss self-advocacy and how you can talk about your strengths,
  • discuss the pros and cons of self-disclosure of your disability.

Mike was so excited to be out of high school. After taking some time off during the early summer, he began to think much about what he was going to do with the next stage of his life. He knew that he wanted to enroll in community college. When he couldn’t find a job right away, his mom insisted that he make an appointment with a vocational rehabilitation counselor. The counselor told him that he would need to have proof of his disability to get the accommodations he needed in college and so the counselor wanted him to take more tests – many of the same type of tests he hated in high school. “Why can’t they just get the results from high school instead of making me sit for hours taking these tests over again?” said Mike as he complained to his mother. “I just don’t understand.” When his mother suggested he call his high school counselor to find out about what documents might be available, Mike found out that he had a ‘ Summary of Functional Performance”(SOP) that he had not picked up from school upon graduation. “Now I understand what that was about”, he said. He hurried over to the school and picked up his SOP documents, thanking his counselor for keeping the documents for him. At the next visit to the vocational rehabilitation counselor, he found out that they could use many of the high school test results summarized in the SOP, instead of having Mike sit through hours of repetitive testing and spend additional rehabilitation funds that could be spent on services. “Cool,” said Mike, and his counselor agreed: “Yes, everyone wins with this SOP idea.”

How does the Americans with Disabilities Act support you in college?

There are two main federal laws that protect people with disabilities from discrimination in higher educational settings like colleges and universities. They are: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. We will begin with the ADA. The ADA guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public and private sector services and employment. The ADA prohibits public colleges and universities from discriminating against people with disabilities. It covers both community colleges and 4-year colleges and universities. Section 504 prohibits any program receiving federal financial assistance from discriminating against an individual because of his or her disability.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA, Public Law 101-336) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, including individuals with learning disabilities and/or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. This law requires public and private institutions to make accommodations for persons with disabilities in the areas of education, employment, transportation, public accommodations, state and local governments, and telecommunications. In high school, the ADA requires that schools provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities—much as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act does. In contrast to Section 504, however, ADA does not just apply to schools receiving federal funding. Even private schools that receive no federal funds cannot deny reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities (although they do not have to provide special education programs). In addition, ADA requires that accommodations be provided to students with disabilities in public and private post secondary schools—colleges and universities, post secondary vocational-technical schools, employer-based training programs, and other private training programs. Under ADA, transition activities can include preparation for college interviews, knowledge about reasonable accommodations provided in the programs, assistance with applications and supporting documentation. ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in postsecondary applications, postsecondary education, job training, job application procedures, hiring, advancement, and employee compensation.

Under ADA regulations, reasonable accommodations at the college level include:

  • modifications to a postsecondary education admission procedure to enable individuals to be considered for admission,
  • modifications in classrooms,
  • modifications in test taking,
  • instructional modifications that would help the student participate in and learn in the college setting.

The ADA encourages colleges to consider applicants with disabilities in their recruitment of teachers, professors and support personnel.

As stated earlier, while a student will not have an IEP or 504 plan, colleges are required under ADA and the Higher Education Act to provide a plan of reasonable accommodations to students with documented disabilities who require them (Shaw, 2006; McGuire & Shaw, 2002; Ekpone & Bogucki, 2002; HEATH, 2003). Often students have support service plans that are similar to 504 plans since they specify the kinds of accommodations that the student is to receive in classrooms and in non-academic activities. Accommodations that can be requested in postsecondary education include testing accommodations, physical accommodations, adaptations of technology, special software for large print, note-takers, supplemental on-line tutorials, extensions of time for papers and homework, tutors, and groups support sessions. Let’s look at an example.

A Math Disability

Pamela, a gifted graduate student has dyscalculia, a disorder affecting mathematical concepts or computations. Adults with dyscalculia often have difficulty moving on to more advanced math applications. Pamela had particular difficulty with math operations and confusion of symbols. She was very good with general math concepts, but was frustrated when specific computation and organization skills needed to be used. Pamela consulted with the campus Disability Services Specialist who arranged for testing. An individualized plan for intervention was developed that involved testing accommodations, use of computer for testing, and tutorial services. The student successfully completed her statistics classes with these accommodations.

Who is eligible under ADA? Anyone with a ‘qualified’ disability is eligible under the ADA. The term disability (patterned after the definition in section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act) refers to an individual who has:

  1. a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities;
  2. has a record of such impairment; or
  3. is regarded by others as having a disability.

Examples of these types of disabilities include specific learning disabilities, orthopedic, visual, speech and hearing impairments, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, HIV infection, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental retardation, and emotional illness. A ‘record’ of a disability refers to a history of having a disability.

ADA prohibits discrimination against students with disabilities in the application process and in their education programs once they are admitted. This means that while you still need to meet entrance criteria such as test scores and GPA, your disability cannot be used as a reason for denying you admittance to a school. Once you are admitted to a school, you may request reasonable accommodations to help you participate in courses, exams, and other activities. Your school will probably want you to provide diagnostic proof that these accommodations are needed (such as a letter from your doctor, or an evaluation report). Students who qualify for accommodations are not given an IEP or 504 plan. Instead, most students communicate with their instructors on their own to get the accommodations they need. For example, here is how one college student with LD describes the accommodations he has worked out:

“Professors have provided me with extra feedback on my writing, have allowed me extensions of time when taking tests and have allowed me to tape record lectures so that I don’t miss any information. Some have printed my materials in large print. Professors and students have respected my abilities and have given me the same opportunities as all student have to participate, learn in group projects, speak in front of the class, and complete all projects and assignments.”

Some accommodations are not supported by ADA. These include:

  1. Changes in the kinds of exams required for courses: For example, a degree program may require mostly essay tests or demonstrations. Requesting a multiple choice exam may be viewed as changing the essential way the field of study wants students to store and demonstrate information.
  2. Requesting extended time for performance-based exercises (such as applying a treatment, or delivering a performance): This may not be permitted because completing a task in a specified amount of time may be an essential skill that cannot be modified.

Colleges have much more flexibility in complying with ADA requirements than secondary schools have in complying with IDEA. This means that they are not required to give you exactly what you ask for if they can accommodate you some other way.

How does the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) support your rights to education in college?

Before the passage of IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 established many important rights for students with disabilities. Today, it still provides important protections for high school students who are not covered by IDEA, as well as students with disabilities in colleges, universities, technical schools, and other post secondary programs. Section 504 covers any college or university that receives direct or indirect federal financial assistance.

Section 504 is a part of the Rehabilitation Act that says it is prohibited to discriminate against people because of their disabilities. It states:

“ No otherwise qualified individual with disabilities . . . shall solely by reasons of his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

 Vocational rehabilitation provides funds for eligible students with disabilities to attend postsecondary education or technical education programs. VR assists persons with cognitive, sensory, physical, or emotional disabilities to attain employment, postsecondary education and increased independence. Students with disabilities are entitled to accommodations to help them succeed in the postsecondary program, but students are responsible for disclosing their disabilities and asking for the accommodations they need. VR services typically last for a limited period of time and are based on an individual's rehabilitation plan.

Postsecondary services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act are not an ‘entitlement’ for each student as it is with IEPs in the secondary setting. Rather, they are based on whether (1) you are determined to be eligible for the services, and (2) whether the accommodation you are asking for does not result in a change in content or standards expected for all students. In college supports are based on what is ‘reasonable’, rather than what is ‘appropriate’ and ‘least restrictive’, as mandated by IDEA. Therefore, support services and accommodations are aimed at providing access to content and reduction of barriers to learning, rather than on promoting achievement. For example a postsecondary school is more likely to provide a note taker than a tutor.

What makes you eligible for services? Section 504 applies to students of all ages who have, or have a record of having, “physical or mental impairments which substantially limit one or more of the major life activities.” The major life activities include caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. Learning is also considered a major life activity.

When talking about educational programs, the term “qualified” means that you are capable of fulfilling the essential functions and requirements of the program, with or without the provision of “reasonable accommodations.” You are “a person with a disability” under the ADA and Section 504 if you:

  • Have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as caring for yourself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working; or
  • Have a record of such impairment. For example, having a history of, or having been misclassified as having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • Are regarded as having such impairment. For example, when a college or university treats or views you like you have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity even when it does not, because of the myths, fears and stereotypes associated with that disability.

How does the Higher Education Act protect your rights to a college education?

What is the Higher Education Act? The Higher Education Act (HEA) is designed to help students to enter postsecondary education – in two year colleges (community colleges), four-year colleges and career-technical colleges -- including students with disabilities. It also provides financial assistance to students. The HEA encourages partnerships between colleges and universities and secondary school. The HEA encourages collaboration among colleges, businesses, community-based organizations, and many other organizations to improve accessibility and support in higher education, to reach out to students with disabilities, and to work to reduce attitudinal barriers that prevent participation of individuals with disabilities within their community. The law allows for early counseling of youth about postsecondary opportunities and what students they need to do to prepare for these opportunities. The Higher Education Act also aims to keep students in college until they graduate and encourages programs that counsel students about financial aid and support services.

The law provides grants to colleges to develop support services for students. The law gives special priority to students with disabilities with low income. Finally, the law funds special projects that train instructors and professors to provide students with disabilities a quality postsecondary education. Such activities can include providing faculty with information about student support services on campus, and special seminars for college teachers and administrators about student accommodation needs, and accommodations in the classrooms and on campus.

What professionals help you to access the services that you are entitled to under the law?

What professionals are there to assist you in the college setting? Two of the most important professionals are the Disability Support Specialist on the college campus and the Vocational Rehabilitation specialist. The Disability Support Specialist provides counseling and ongoing support to help students to make full use of opportunities at the college or university. The DSS Office Director often serves as go-between, or liaison, with college faculty, staff and administrators, vocational rehabilitation counselors, and other social service agencies. Disability services offices serve as the central point of contact for information on accommodations, how to resolve complaints and problems, faculty and staff concerns, and finding of available services. In addition, the disability services office can provide training, consultation, and information regarding disability issues. Typically, the Coordinator of the Disability Resource Center also takes the role of 504 Coordinator and helps provide for reasonable accommodations.

Upon graduation, the Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) specialist works with the student to help him or her get access to and support in employment or postsecondary education. The rehabilitation specialist typically works for the state’s vocational rehabilitation (VR) agency, helping people with disabilities prepare for and find employment. For students who are eligible for VR, services may include an evaluation of your interests, capabilities, and limitations; job training; transportation; aids and devices; job placement; support to begin postsecondary education; and job follow-up.


This module has discussed your legal rights in the college and university setting. These legal rights include rights to accommodations, rights to access the campus environment and the laws that protect their rights. These laws included (a) rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; (b) civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act; (c) rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation act; and (d) rights under the Higher Education Act.

To protect yourself, know your rights. Also, it is always a good idea to document and keep copies of everything that is related to your disability and education. For example, write down the names of people you speak to about accommodations for your disability. Write down dates and times, and keep copies of all letters you send and receive. If you are the victim of discrimination, having this information will make it easier for you to prove your case and resolve your concerns. Knowing about your legal rights to education and employment opportunities is essential to your transition from high school to postsecondary education. Understanding the laws can help you identify the services that you have a right to in the college setting, and how to obtain them.


College: You Can Do It!

The Law After High School

Students with Disabilities Preparing for Post secondary Education: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities (U. S. Department of Education).

The Civil Rights of Students with Hidden Disabilities Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights Washington, D.C. 20202-1328

A 14-minute video titled College: You Can DO-IT! may be freely viewed online or purchased here

Assessment and evaluation

Now that you read this module, use the following steps to develop a plan of action for meeting your professors.

  1. Take the self-assessment to better understand your responsibility and attitudes toward professors
  2. Describe your responsibility in developing and maintaining a good relationships with your professors
  3. Discuss with someone who has been to college what worked for them in their relationships with professors
  4. Talk with a professor about their experiences with students with disabilities. Ask them what they see as their role in helping students with disabilities. Ask them what they think works best for developing good communication.
  5. Consider attending a summer orientation program at a nearby college (or the college you plan to enroll). Speak to as many professors or instructors as you can. Speak to as many college students as you can.


It is important that you:

  • Determine what rights you have to education in the college setting, and explain how your legal rights are important to you,
  • Determine the responsibilities of postsecondary institutions for providing you with accommodations and support services,
  • Explain the laws that protect your rights to education in the college setting.
  • Determine how you can access the services that you are entitled to under the law.

Knowing about your legal rights to education and employment opportunities is essential to your transition into postsecondary education and successful completion. Understanding the laws can help you identify the services that you have a right to in the college setting, and how to obtain them. Knowing them can help you get on to the next chapter in your life.




(To: Find out who deals with accommodations requests at your school and address your letter to that person.)

Attention: Mr. Charner, Director

Disabled Students Services

West Chester College

West Chester, Pennsylvania 19317

RE: Request for Reasonable Accommodations Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Dear Mr. Charner:

(Explain why you are writing the letter.) Please consider this letter a request for reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. I understand that you are the person who handles these requests.

(Next, explain your disability.) I am a student with a learning disability.

(Next, explain how your disability affects you at school.) My disability substantially impairs my ability to process written information. (Next, state the accommodation you need.) Because of my disability I require extra time on exams.

(If your doctor or someone else who knows about your disability supports your need for that accommodation, state who they are here.) My doctors have recommended that I get double time on all exams. (If you have gotten the accommodation you are asking for in the past, say so here.) This is the accommodation I have needed and received since I was in high school. (Next, describe any letters or documents you have attached in support of your request.) I have attached a letter of recommendation from my doctor. If more information is needed please let me know right away.

(Finally, ask that your request be answered within a reasonable amount of time.) I ask that you respond to this request in writing within 10 business days.


(Sign the letter with your address and phone number!)

Phil Graham, Student Class of 2009

P.O. Box 23304

West Chester College

West Chester, PA 19317

(215) 000-0000



(Date your letter here)

(Find out from your school who is responsible for taking students' requests for accommodations. Your doctor can address your support letter to him/her. If you don't know who to address the letter to, just have your doctor write "To whom it may concern".)

Attention: Mr. Charner, Director

Disabled Students Services

West Chester College

West Chester, Pennsylvania, 19317

RE: Phil Graham’s Request for Reasonable Accommodations in His Educational Program for his Disability.

Dear Mr. Charner:

(First, say why you are writing.) The letter is submitted in support of Phil Graham’s request for reasonable accommodations for his learning disability.

(Next, describe your specialty, where you work and how long the student has been in your care.) I am a learning disability specialist. I have worked in that capacity at Penn State since 1984. Phil has been in my care since he was a high school student.

(Next, describe the student's disability in detail. Attach assessments where appropriate.) The extent and impact of Phil's learning disabilities are well documented. I tested Phil personally in 2006, and again in October of 2007. The level of Phil’s impairment has remained consistent and is significant. For a full discussion of Phil’s testing results and diagnosis, please refer to my assessments, which I have attached for your convenience.

(Next, describe the student's impairment in detail, including how it impacts him/her in the educational setting.) In a nutshell, Phil is significantly impaired in his ability to process written information. It takes him twice as long as a non-learning disabled student to comprehend written materials.

(Next, describe the accommodation or action necessary to compensate for the student's disability). To compensate for this deficit, it is my recommendation that Joe receive double time on all written exams, regardless of format (i.e. essay or multiple choice). This accommodation is commonly provided to students with learning disabilities like Joe. Without this accommodation it is my professional opinion that Joe will be denied equal access to his educational program. Please feel free to contact me should you need further information in order to grant Joe's request.


(Finally, sign your name, and state your address and phone number.)

Dr. Mary Burberry, Ph.D.

Learning Disability Specialist


Los Angeles, CA 90210

(213) 444-4444

This document made possible in part by the support of The HSC Foundation, a Washingtion, D.C.-based foundation dedicated to expanding access andsuccess in education beyond high school. HEATH is affiliated with The George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development.The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The HSC Foundation. No official endorsement by the Foundation or of any product, commodity, service or enterprise mentioned in thispublication is intended or should be inferred. Permission to use, copy, and distribute this document for non-commercial use and without fee, is hereby granted if appropriate credit to the HEATH Resource Center at the National Youth Transitions Center is included in all copies.