There are five laws that prohibit disability discrimination at these higher education institutions. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on disability at all public and private schools, except for schools run by religious institutions. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) prohibits such discrimination at any school, including church-affiliated schools, that receives federal funds, such as student financial aid loan programs. These two laws provide similar protections to students and applicants with disabilities.
In California, students with disabilities are also protected by the Unruh Civil Rights Act (Unruh Act) (private schools), California Government Code Section 11135 (Section 11135) (public schools), and California Civil Code Section 54 (Section 54) (both public and private schools). Generally, any violation of the ADA or Section 504 is also a violation of the Unruh Act, Section 11135, or Section 54, but these state laws may provide greater protections in some cases.2. Who is protected by the ADA, Section 504, and California’s Unruh Act and Section 54?
A person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity is “disabled” under the ADA or Section 504. A person with a physical or mental impairment that limits a major life activity is “disabled” under the Unruh Act and other California state laws. It is helpful to break down this definition into its parts:
“Major life activities” include:
“Substantially limiting” means the impairment significantly restricts how someone can perform a major life activity, compared to the average person. “Limiting” means the impairment makes the achievement of a major life activity difficult. Negative side effects of medications may be considered in determining whether someone is substantially limited.3. What if my condition is stabilized with medication or I use a prosthetic device?
According to a 1999 United States Supreme Court case, “mitigating measures” should be considered in determining whether an individual is disabled under the ADA. This means if a person is very stable on her medication, or is using a prosthetic, and is not currently substantially limited in a major life activity, that person is not “disabled” under the ADA or Section 504. California law is distinct from, and stronger than, the ADA or Section 504. Under the Unruh Act, Section 11135, and Section 54, mitigating measures may not be considered in determining whether a person is disabled. This means that people who are currently stable due to medications or other treatment are still protected.4. Who else is protected?
The ADA and Section 504 also protect people who are regarded or treated as having a disability, even if they do not. Also protected are persons with a record or history of a disability. In addition, the Unruh Act, Section 11135, and Section 54 protect persons who are not currently disabled, but who may become disabled in the future.5. What are my rights if I have a disability?
Under federal and state law, schools cannot discriminate against qualified students and applicants with disabilities. This means that if you have a disability and meet academic or other standards for admission to or participation in school programs, you cannot be treated differently from other students—denied admission or enrollment, graded poorly, failed, suspended, expelled, or harassed—because of your disability. Qualified students with disabilities may also obtain reasonable accommodations so that they can participate in school programs.
Generally, schools are required to ensure that all of their programs, services, activities, and facilities are accessible to persons with disabilities. Further, you may not be retaliated against for asking for an accommodation or otherwise asserting your rights.6. What is a reasonable accommodation?
Reasonable accommodations are adjustments or modifications made to a school policy, or specific supports or services provided to a student with a disability, to enable the student to participate in school programs, including admissions, academics, vocational education, housing, physical education, athletics, recreation, extracurricular activities, transportation, counseling, health insurance (covering both physical and psychiatric disabilities), and financial aid.
What is a reasonable accommodation for a particular student will depend upon the situation and the type of program. The accommodation, however, may not be unduly costly or disruptive for the school, or be for the student’s personal use only. A student has the right to refuse a particular accommodation.
Examples of modifications of school policies include:
Examples of supports or services that may be provided to a student include:
Students may not be charged for these supports and services, although the school may pay for them by helping a student obtain reimbursement from an outside organization, such as a state rehabilitation agency.
The process of obtaining supports or services in higher education settings may be different from that in elementary, middle, and high school. A student with a disability who has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in grade school shares responsibility—and sometimes does not participate much at all—for identifying and obtaining supports with parents, school administrators, teachers, and specialists. In postsecondary schools, however, the student has the primary responsibility for identifying and documenting her disability and requesting specific supports, services, and other accommodations to meet her needs.7. When is a school required to accommodate a student or applicant?
A school is only required to accommodate known disabilities. There is no one specific way for a student to notify a school about a disability, and the school’s knowledge of the disability may be implied. To guarantee the legal right to an accommodation, however, you should explicitly disclose your disability—before you receive a low grade because you did not have the accommodation you need.8. Who do I talk to if I need a reasonable accommodation?
Generally, postsecondary schools have Offices for Students with Disabilities which process requests for accommodations; in California, for example, all community colleges have Disabled Students Programs and Services (DSPS) offices that handle accommodations requests. Whether or not this is the case, a student with a disability can also speak with the school’s ADA or Section 504 Coordinator, the Dean of Student Affairs, an academic advisor, or a teacher to disclose a disability and ask for an accommodation.9. What do I have to say to let the school know I need a reasonable accommodation?
You must provide the school with enough information to show the existence of an impairment, and its impact on a major life activity. To be safe, you should use words such as “disability,” “impairment,” “limiting,” “major life activities,” and “accommodation.”10. Do I have to request an accommodation in writing?
No. You can request an accommodation in writing, orally, through e-mail, or by any other form of communication. You may want to keep written records of your request, however, in case there is a dispute in the future over whether you made the request.11. Do I have to release my medical records to obtain accommodations?
No. If your disability or your need for accommodation is not obvious, however, your school may ask for reasonable medical documentation. The documentation should be limited to a doctor’s note or other documents, such as test results or diagnostic reports from grade school, showing that you have a disability and need accommodation. You are not required to produce your entire medical or mental health history.12. What happens after I request an accommodation?
Once you request an accommodation, the school must make a reasonable effort to determine the appropriate accommodation. However, you must also be willing to participate in the process of developing and implementing the accommodation.
Students who do not fully participate in the process may lose their rights. This participation may require the student to submit requested medical documentation and to attend scheduled meetings. If the school or student rejects a suggested accommodation, the student must take steps to continue the process.
To protect your rights, take proactive steps, such as:
Sometimes professors don’t understand that accommodations are necessary so that students with disabilities can participate fully in class. Even if the professor is concerned about having her lecture taped, she may have to permit taping to allow a student with visual impairments to benefit from a course. Even if a professor is uncomfortable with permitting extra time for examinations, she may have to allow a student who needs extra time for processing information to have it. If your professor refuses to let you use the accommodation you need, or gives you “attitude” about using it, contact the Office for Students with Disabilities, the Dean of Student Affairs, or your faculty advisor to ask them to speak with the professor.14. What if I need an accommodation to apply to the school?
The school must modify admissions tests so that test results accurately reflect your aptitude, knowledge, or achievement level—not your disability. Under Section 504, however, the school cannot ask you if you have a disability and need an accommodation during the admissions process. If you need a reasonable accommodation to complete admissions forms, ask the school admissions office or Office for Students with Disabilities.15. What if the campus is inaccessible?
By law, all schools have to make all their programs, services, and activities accessible to students with disabilities, in the most integrated setting appropriate. Schools can do this by making all of their facilities accessible, or by reassigning students or programs to accessible facilities. Additionally, all new school buildings should be completely accessible. To make a facility or part of a facility accessible, schools should:
If you think your classroom building, dormitory, library, student center, school website, or other school facilities are inaccessible, contact your Office for Students with Disabilities or Dean of Student Affairs.16. What can I do if my college refuses to give me the accommodations I need, or discriminates against me because of my disability?
If your school refuses to provide you with the reasonable accommodation you need, fails to address access problems, or otherwise discriminates against you because of your disability, you can: