Helping students with disabilities can become a complex issue, and I am grateful to the many colleagues that I’ve received assistance from over the years. I’ve collaborated with one, in particular, who has helped me understand the issues more fully- Rachel Mann. Rachel is a Senior Staff Attorney and Advocate at the Disability Rights Network in Philadelphia . She and I have worked together for nearly 10 years on cases regarding the rights of students with disabilities, entitlement services, and even appeals for students who were denied health care services. Not only is she genuinely concerned about students with disabilities, she has expertise across a wide range of disability issues. I consider Rachel to be a dear colleague, and she graciously agreed to be interviewed about topics that affect the transition of students with disabilities to college. My questions are below, along with Rachel’s answers (under “RM”).
Can you describe the difference between an IEP and a “504” plan? Why would a K-12 school student use these?
RM: In the public school system, children who have disabilities may have either an Individualized Education Plan (an IEP), or an accommodation plan under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. An IEP is an entitlement for a student who, as a result of disability, needs special education and related services. IEPs typically have measurable goals related to academic subjects, and would also include accommodations, such as extra time on tests. A 504 Plan is required for a student who does not have an IEP but who has a disability that substantially limits a major life activity and needs accommodations in order to get the full benefit of the public school program. A 504 Plan would simply list accommodations, such as an aide to assist with transfers, specialized seating, permission to take breaks, etc… An example of the distinction might be: Two children have hearing impairments. One of the children, as a result of the hearing impairment, has great difficulty learning to read. This child is entitled to an IEP that would provide for, among other things, specialized reading instruction with measurable goals in reading, as well as a sign language interpreter or an FM transmitter (a type of hearing aid that enables the teacher to wear a small microphone that sends her amplified voice directly to the child’s hearing aid or cochlear implant) in all classes. The other child reads well and does well in school, but needs an interpreter or FM transmitter in order to follow the lessons. This child does not need “special education”, but needs a 504 Plan to ensure that the interpreter or FM transmitter will be used by all her teachers.
So what happens when they go to college?
RM: Colleges have no obligation to provide special education services, but they are required, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act as well as under the Americans with Disabilities Act, to provide disability accommodations. Students who have had accommodations listed in either an IEP or a 504 Plan in high school will likely be able to get similar accommodations in college, but it is not an automatic process. Most colleges have a Disability Office of some sort, where students with disabilities can get advice and assistance. If the student is able to document that he or she has a disability that substantially limits a major life function such as walking, breathing, eating, hearing, learning, reading or concentrating (for example), then the college must provide “reasonable” accommodations that are necessary to afford students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in the school’s program. Examples include, extra time on examinations, materials provided in Braille or large print format, qualified readers for individuals with visual impairments, or interpreters to individuals with hearing impairments, substituting specific course requirements (under limited circumstances) or extra time for the completion of course requirements.
Are there any limitations on a college’s obligation to provide “reasonable” accommodations?
RM: Yes. The ADA and Section 504 do not require a college to provide accommodations that would result in a fundamental alteration of the college’s programs, services, or activities. For example, a college likely would not be required to lower test score requirements or to waive essential course requirements for students with disabilities. A college is also not required to provide items and services that would result in an undue burden – that is, a “significant difficulty or expense,” – taking into consideration all the resources available to the college. Since colleges typically have substantial resources, this is a fairly high standard. Even if a particular accommodation or auxiliary aid and service would pose an undue burden or a fundamental alteration, the college must still provide a student with a disability an alternative accommodation that would not pose such hardships. Finally, colleges and universities are not required to supply students with individually prescribed devices such as hearing aids and wheelchairs.
Since there aren’t IEPs or 504 plans in college, does it place more responsibility on the student to make sure that their disability needs are met?
RM: Certainly. Unlike public schools (where school districts have the responsibility to identify students with disabilities and assess their need for special education or accommodations), colleges need not do anything unless and until the student makes a request. Students need to be pro-active, make sure they have documentation of their disabilities, think through what types of accommodations would be most helpful to them, and advocate for themselves. Finding the right college is also the students’ responsibility. While all colleges are required to make reasonable accommodations (unless they are religious schools and receive no federal funds), some colleges are easier to work with than others. If you choose a college that is not especially accommodating, be prepared to be a strong advocate for yourself.
Can a student be denied admission to a college because of a disability?
RM: Under the ADA and Section 504, a college cannot deny admission to a student on the basis of that student’s disability, if the student meets the essential eligibility criteria for admission to that college. So, for example, if the school requires a B average in high school and a certain score on the SATs, and the student is unable to meet those goals, the student can be denied admission to the school regardless of any disability. (Note – the student may well be entitled to accommodations on the SATs themselves, but that is not the college’s responsibility to arrange.) If the student does meet the essential criteria, the college is not permitted to deny admission on the basis of the disability. The school will be required to provide reasonable accommodations.
Could a student with a disability that’s doing very well in school be denied accommodations because they don’t need them? Is it possible to do “too well” for accommodations?
RM: In the case of certain disabilities, such as learning disabilities, this can be an issue. For purposes of the ADA or 504, a disability must substantially limit a major life activity. Under the case law, the “substantial limitation” will not be judged by how the student would perform in the absence of the disability, but rather how the student performs relative to the average person in the general population. Therefore a school could conclude that the student’s success in school is proof that the student is not substantially limited in the activity of “learning” compared to the average person. In some cases, such as dyslexia, it could be helpful for the student to identify the “major life activity” at issue as “reading” rather than “learning”. As long as the student’s reading skills are substantially below average, the student would continue to have a covered disability and be entitled to accommodations (such as extended time on tests) even if the student is more successful in school than the average person.
Are there any actions that a student can take if they are denied a request for accommodations at the college level?
RM: Most colleges have appeal procedures that can be used. If that doesn’t help, you can file a Complaint with the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Health and Human Services or in the Department of Justice if you do so within 180 days of the decision to deny accommodations. Finally, you can file a federal lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (if it is not a religious school) or under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (assuming the school receives federal funds, as most colleges do). Most states have their own discrimination statutes as well.
In what ways can your organization help students with disabilities who wish to attend college?
RM: The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania (DRN) is a statewide, non–profit corporation designated as the federally–mandated organization to advance and protect the civil rights of adults and children with disabilities. We can provide information, referral, advocacy services, and sometimes legal services to students with disabilities of any kind wishing to attend college, with regard to disability related issues, particularly those who may be experiencing discrimination. Pennsylvania students or family members can call our intake system at 1-800-692-7443.
For more information about the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania , please visit their website at drnpa.org, which includes podcasts, publications, and links to helpful information regarding disabilities and special education information.
**For a Q&A with the parent of a student who failed out, was academically dismissed, and is now back in school with above a 3.0 GPA, please read: Q&A With The Parent Of A Successful Turn-Around Student.
Jeff Ludovici works with students and families across the U.S. about issues pertaining to college planning, preventing college problems, as well as getting students re-started if they have had problems in college. He is based in Pittsburgh , but has clients in New York , Illinois , Indiana , Florida , and other states. If you have questions, comments, or a student that needs help, feel free to write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the contact form at collegestrategyblog.com