What are a university’s responsibilities to students with disabilities, and how do those responsibilities differ from a school’s responsibilities under special education law (IDEA)?
Students who have been served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) while in elementary or secondary school often have misconceptions about a university’s responsibilities to persons with disabilities and the range of services a post-secondary institution is required to provide. Though post-secondary institutions such as Adelphi do have a legal responsibility (under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) to make their programs and services accessible to persons with disabilities, the broad mandated responsibilities that elementary and secondary schools incur under the IDEA don’t apply to post-secondary institutions.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is an “entitlement” law intended to guarantee persons with disabilities a free and appropriate primary and secondary education that allows for achievement in the least restrictive environment. Within this educational framework, funding is mandated to identify students with significant challenges and provide them with appropriate services that facilitate successful learning. Aggressive measures, including the substantial alteration of academic course requirements, are often used to assure the success of students in special education programs.
In contrast, section 504 and the ADA are “non-discrimination” statutes that are based on a civil rights model. They aren’t entitlement laws, and they don’t guarantee successful learning or mandate the creation of special programs for persons with disabilities. Instead, section 504 and the ADA guarantee that the simple presence of a disability cannot be used as the basis for denying an otherwise qualified student equal “access” to the same programs, services and facilities available to others. Simply stated, the goal of section 504 and the ADA is to remove barriers and to guarantee reasonable accommodations so that persons with disabilities have an opportunity to participate at the same level as all students.