High school students with disabilities may have questions about their rights as they transition from high school to college. While the Individuals with Disabilities Act (“IDEA”) ensures that children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education, its protections do not extend to colleges and universities. There are no IEP’s in college, nor are colleges required to “identify” students with disabilities. That does not, however, mean that students will have no support once they enter college.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”) prohibits post-secondary institutions that receive federal funding from discriminating against a student with a disability. Under Section 504, colleges must ensure that students with disabilities are not “excluded from participation in” or “denied the benefits of” their education because of their disability. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), similarly, prohibits state colleges from discriminating based on a disability. This means that colleges and universities are obligated to provide auxiliary aids and services to students if they are needed to participate in class. Examples of auxiliary aids include notetakers, interpreters, electronic readers, and assistive listening devices.
Postsecondary institutions are forbidden from requiring students with disabilities to pay part or all of the cost of an auxiliary aid. If it is established that an aid is necessary for class participation, the college must provide it, unless doing so would cause undue burden. Additionally, colleges cannot limit what they spend for auxiliary aids or make provision of the aid conditioned on the availability funds.
Students with disabilities are responsible for informing their college of their disability and assisting in identifying a suitable auxiliary aid. Students can begin this process by speaking with their professor, the dean of the department, the campus Office of Disability Services, or the school’s 504 or ADA coordinator. Ideally, this should be done before classes start. Colleges may then ask for supporting medical documentation or obtain their own determination from a medical professional on whether an aid is necessary. Examples of necessary documentation might be a diagnosis of the disability, the date of the diagnosis, and how the disability affects academic performance. Students, therefore, should be prepared to provide documentation when requesting an auxiliary aid.
Above all, auxiliary aids must be effective. An auxiliary aid may not be as effective for one student as it is for another. For example, while one student may benefit greatly from a notetaker, a student with a similar disability may benefit more from a taped recorder. The effectiveness of an auxiliary aid will depend on the student and the setting in which the auxiliary aid will be used (ex. large lecture halls, seminars). While colleges are not required to provide the most “high-tech” auxiliary aids, they must give primary consideration to an aid that a student specifically requests.
College is a time marked by both excitement and independence. Self-advocacy skills are key, as students are responsible for disclosing their disability and identifying a suitable aid. If you or someone you know is a high school student with a disability who is planning for college, there are several resources to help prepare for the transition: