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Reasonable Expectations About Reasonable Accommodations: Transitioning to College

If you are one of the nearly 70% of high school seniors expected to enroll at a college or university immediately after high school (per the National Center for Education Statistics), it never hurts to have some idea of what to expect during your first term. And if you are among the 14% of all K-12 public school students in the United States receiving special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), knowing if (and how) you qualify to receive assistance is critical.

Thankfully, the laws and regulations, primarily the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), the Americans with Disability Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973,were designed to require most colleges and universities to provide “reasonable accommodations” for students with a disability or impairment. According to 34 CFR § 104.4, any recipients of federal financial assistance, which very likely includes your college or university, must ensure that “no qualifying handicapped person shall, on the basis of handicap, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or otherwise be subjected to discrimination…” 

In order to qualify to receive assistance at a college because of a disability or impairment, an individual must meet the definitions of 34 CFR § 104.3,“(j)(1)Handicapped persons means any person who (i) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, (ii) has a record of such an impairment, or (iii) is regarded as having such an impairment.” Because of the ADAAA individuals with impairments that are substantially limiting when present but only experience these impairments episodically, now meet the definition of an individual qualifying for reasonable accommodations. By design, these definitions cast a wide net. 

You should note that the requirements of ADA and Section 504 are different than those required by IDEA; the goal is to prevent discrimination on the basis of an individual’s disability, not to, for example, provide specifically designed instruction or an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for students with a qualifying disability. The courts have been very deferential to the expertise of colleges and universities so long as they follow their documented processes. As such, the accommodations provided to you by the college may not be what you are expecting, nor what you have received in high school.

For example, colleges are required to provide auxiliary aids and services (i.e. notetakers, assistive listening systems, screen readers, and other devices or services, or qualified interpreters, readers, or equipment) for students with impaired sensory skills. Regulations also require colleges to provide modifications to academic requirements for things like degree timelines, additional testing time, and course adaptations. 

College are not required, however, to “fundamentally alter the service, program, or activity” in order to accommodate an individual with a disability or impairment. Reasonable accommodations are, by and large, reasonable. For example, in a 1988 case heard by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, a law student was not allowed to continue with his enrollment due to his failing to meet the law school’s academic standards; although he claimed discrimination due to his disability (alcoholism). Additionally, there is some burden on the student to actually utilize the accommodations provided or the student risks the invalidity of future claims of discrimination based on disability. In Ladwig v. Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University, a student filed a discrimination case based on the claim that the university did not provide an accommodation because it denied a retroactive withdrawal that was sought due to a recurrent depression and head injury. The student failed to utilize letters of accommodation provided to her by the university’s disability service office.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which enforces college compliance with the requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, notes that “students with disabilities who know their rights and responsibilities are much better equipped to succeed in postsecondary school. We encourage you to work with the staff at your school because they, too, want you to succeed.” As a student transitioning to college, I encourage you to get to know the compassionate professionals in your college’s disability services office. They are there to help!

This is a guest post from Mr. David Larsen, a husband, father, doctoral student at Oregon State University, and a Dean of Students at Green River College in Auburn, Washington.

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