The Law and College Students with Disabilities
a. What is Section 504?
In 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act (Public Law 93-112). This act guarantees civil rights for Americans with disabilities. The law is grounded in the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Section 504 is the section of the law that specifically refers to postsecondary and vocational education services.
Section 504 of Public Law 93-112 provides that "…. No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall, solely by reason 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." With respect to postsecondary and vocational education services, "otherwise qualified" means a person with disabilities who meets the academic and technical standards requisite to admission or participation in the program or activity.
b. Does Section 504 mean lowering academic standards?
No, nothing in the language or intent of Section 504 abridges the freedom of an institution of higher education to establish academic requirements and standards. Under Section 504 guidelines, colleges and universities can require some physical qualifications for certain clinical programs. For example, it would be reasonable to require students training as pilots or surgeons to have the needed level of visual acuity. However, the same vision level would not necessarily be required of students training as psychiatrists or as airline ground personnel.
A student's disabling condition may not be considered as part of any nonclinical admissions decision. Therefore, all students with disabilities will have been admitted through the same admissions process as other students.
c. What does Section 504 and the ADA require of postsecondary institutions?
Essentially, Section 504 requires that colleges and universities make those reasonable adjustments necessary to eliminate discrimination on the basis of disability. For example, it may be necessary to remove classroom prohibitions against animals (in the case of service animals). Other less obvious examples might include extending time limits on exams for a student with a learning disability or allowing lectures to be audio recorded when disabilities impair a student's ability to keep up with the lecturer. Occasionally, a substitution may have to be made for a course requirement (i.e., an art appreciation elective vs. a music appreciation elective for a student who is deaf). Classes enrolling students with mobility impairments may have to be relocated in accessible facilities. The college or university may need to provide special services such as priority registration, sign language interpreters for students who are hearing impaired or specially proctored examination arrangements and/or locations. Note that emphasis in each of these adjustments is on the word "may." The key is accommodating the disability, not altering essential elements of the course. "May" means that with the exception of removing architectural barriers, no set formulas exist for making adjustments. For example, a computerized registration procedure may provide easy access to students with hearing impairments or mobility difficulties, but may pose problems to some students with certain types of learning disabilities or with visual impairments.
In the classroom, a student who has difficulties reading due to a learning disability or visual impairment, or a student with a mobility impairment who has problems in the manner in which he or she is expected to respond to an exam question, may require additional time to complete an examination. Thus, the adaptation will be specific to the needs of the individual student. In every case, the intent is to accommodate the disability without altering academic standards or course content. More recent federal legislation as stated in the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act of 2008 broadens the definition of disability as well as physical and program accessibility and by regulation defines appropriate accommodations. Moreover, the ADA authorizes the right by a single individual to bring suit for discrimination based on disability against not only the University as a public entity but also the individual/s responsible for the act of discrimination. In the classroom, the law requires that an instructor adapt the course presentation to meet the unique needs of the student's disabling condition. The law also charges students with the responsibility to make his or her abilities and limitations known and to meet with or without accommodations the instructor's expectations in class participation, performance, and work standards. The Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 are not designed to ensure equal results but are designed to ensure equal opportunities of access.
d. Student Disability Services (SDS)
UTSA is fortunate to have an office dedicated to providing accommodations for students with disabilities. Student Disability Services is located in MS 3.01.16 and is dedicated to providing an array of services for the student with a disability as well as assist faculty and staff in the implementation of accommodations in the classroom as well as all classroom related student programs throughout campus.
While SDS embraces the uniqueness of the faculty-student relationship as essential, you will receive notifications regarding a student with a disability and appropriate accommodations to guarantee equal access. Relying on the expertise and guidance available from Student Disability Services will simplify your compliance with the law.