Disability Law and Higher Education

disability law books, click to enlargeThe rights of students with disabilities at the university level are protected under Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008. Although some Northwestern students were served in previous schooling under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) of 2004, IDEIA and its special education provisions do not apply to university-level students.

Summary of Section 504's Prohibitions

No otherwise qualified [sic] individual with a disability in the United States shall, solely by reason of his/her [sic] 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.

Section 504

Under the provisions of Section 504, Northwestern University may not:

  • Limit the number of otherwise qualified students admitted that have a disability
  • Make pre-admission inquiries as to whether an applicant has a disability
  • Exclude an otherwise qualified student with a disability from any course of study
  • Provide less financial assistance to students with disabilities than is provided to other students, or limit eligibility for scholarships on the basis of disability
  • Counsel students with disabilities into more restrictive career paths based solely on their disability
  • Measure student achievement using modes that adversely discriminate against a student with a disability
  • Establish rules and policies that have the effect of limiting participation of students with disabilities in educational programs or activities

Summary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)

ADA extends anti-discrimination legislation to all institutions of higher education regardless of whether or not the institution receives federal funds. The ADA provides comprehensive civil rights protection to individuals with disabilities in the areas of employment, public accommodations, state and local governmental services, and telecommunications. The act contains five titles; Titles II through V apply specifically to students who attend post-secondary educational institutions:
Title I
Covers nondiscrimination in employment activities. It requires that employers not discriminate on the basis of disability in recruitment, hiring, retention, or promotion of employees. Employment opportunities must be made available when it can be shown that, with or without reasonable accommodations, the individual can successfully perform the essential functions of the job.
Title II
Of the ADA is divided into two subparts. Subpart A requires that state and local government entities and programs be made accessible to individuals with disabilities. Subpart B covers transportation and requires that public transportation systems be made fully accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.
Title III
Covers the accessibility and availability of programs, goods and services provided by public and private entities. Although the Act uses the term "public accommodations," it is focused on the context of use by the public rather than operation by a public entity. By definition, a public accommodation can be privately owned, operated, and/or offered.
Title IV
Requires that telecommunication services be made accessible to individuals with hearing and speech impairments and has a specific reference to the development of telecommunications relay systems and closed-captioned technology.
Title V
Of the ADA contains miscellaneous provisions that apply to all of the other titles.

ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008

On September 25, 2008, the President signed the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 ("ADA Amendments Act" or "Act"). The Act emphasizes that the definition of disability should be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA and generally shall not require extensive analysis.

The Act makes important changes to the definition of the term "disability" by rejecting the holdings in several Supreme Court decisions and portions of EEOC's ADA regulations. The effect of these changes is to make it easier for an individual seeking protection under the ADA to establish that he or she has a disability within the meaning of the ADA.