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Impacting Post-Secondary Education & Disability Services

There are two major pieces of legislation that have impacted students with disabilities in the university setting.  They are The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 2008 (ADAAA).

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

This law was the first anti-discrimination law for persons with disabilities. The law prohibited discrimination in any program or activity receiving federal funds of $2,500 or more per year. Financial assistance may be in the form of grants, contracts, or general assistance. Such organizations are required to make reasonable modifications in settings and facilities to increase accessibility to persons with disabilities. These organizations are required to follow nondiscrimination policies for workers and participants with disabilities. 

Since most universities (both public and private) receive federal funds through grants and other contracts, universities have been required to follow the legislative mandates for over 25 years. Although there are several sections to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the primary section particularly relevant to postsecondary settings is Section 504 which focuses on providing equal opportunity to qualified persons with disabilities.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973—Section 504

“No otherwise qualified handicapped individual shall, solely by means of handicap, 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.”

This mandate from the Rehabilitation Act was later expanded to include any public or private institution.  Subpart E of the Act requires an institution to be prepared to make reasonable academic adjustments and accommodations to allow students with disabilities full participation in the same programs and activities available to students without disabilities.  

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990

The ADA further reinforces The Rehabilitation Act statutes.  Under the ADA there are five “Titles.” These are:

Title I: Employment

This Title prohibits discrimination in hiring, promotion, and firing of qualified persons with disabilities. Job applicants and employees with disabilities who work in postsecondary settings are covered. It should be noted that the ADA does not apply to businesses that have less than 15 employees.  

Title II: Public Services

This Title mandates that any state or local government or any department, agency or other instrumentality of a state shall not exclude persons with disabilities from participation in or deny them the benefits of services, programs, or activities of a public entity (e.g., colleges and universities). This title also sets standards for increasing accessible transportation such as bus, taxi, and train services.  

Under Title II postsecondary institutions may not discriminate against students with disabilities and they are obligated to offer educational programs in accessible buildings and offer related accessible services (e.g., classroom instruction, residence life, food service, parking). 

Title III: Public Accommodations 

Title III provides that individuals with disabilities shall benefit from full and equal enjoyment of all goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation. Places of public accommodation include:  museums, hotels, professional offices, restaurants, schools (including classrooms and residence halls), sport complexes, and theaters.

Title IV: Telecommunications

This requires that inter- and intrastate telecommunications relay services are available to hearing-impaired and speech-impaired persons that will result in greater access in using communication devices.  Television programs that are funded through the federal government must include closed captioning of the verbal content. 

Title V: Miscellaneous Provisions

Includes a variety of provisions such as further delineating who is not covered under the ADA, reaffirming that a person with a disability is not required to accept an accommodation if that person chooses not to do so, and providing technical assistance to help all persons understand their legal responsibilities as contained in the ADA.


For further information, refer to the following web sites from the Department of Education:

Auxiliary Aids and Services for Postsecondary Students with Disabilities

Questions and Answers on Disability Discrimination Under Section 504 and Title II

The Civil Rights of Students with Hidden Disabilities Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973