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Legislation Pertaining to Postsecondary Education and Disabilities

There are three federal laws that are considered key elements in enhancing the participation of disabled individuals in postsecondary settings. They are:

  1. Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  2. The Americans With Disabilities Act
  3. The Americans With Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008
  4. Section 508 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The term “reasonable accommodations” is a concept often associated with this legislation. In education, the term indicates practices used to promote the inclusion and success of students with disabilities without compromising course or program rigor. In colleges and universities, reasonable accommodations may be something as straightforward as providing physical access to facilities, such as curb cuts, special parking, or elevators and ramps where needed.  Within the classroom, the practice of providing a note taker and sign language interpreter to a deaf student, or allowing the use of a tape recorder in class to a student who has a learning disability is another example.  A less frequent example may include course modification, such as changing the nature of a field trip for a student who cannot walk easily, or modifying a class project so that a student with a disability has an equal opportunity to demonstrate his or her competence. 

The act of providing these types of accommodations is essentially one of equity. Often, with slight modifications beyond the “norm,” students with even severe disabilities thrive and succeed.  Instructors are encouraged to talk directly with students and to the Learning Assistance Program staff about how they can provide the best learning experience possible for students with disabilities.

Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 is essentially civil rights legislation that prevents discrimination solely on the basis of disability for otherwise qualified persons. “Otherwise qualified,” means a student who has the academic and intellectual potential to succeed in a given course, and who has a disability recognized under this law. Among other things, a person with a disability is defined as one who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The guidelines derived from the law pertain to any postsecondary education entity receiving federal funds.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990

The ADA advanced the provisions of equal opportunity provided by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act into all public programs and services, such as transportation, employment and hiring practices, and businesses of all types. However, unlike Section 504, the ADA’s regulations apply regardless of whether or not a business or organization receives federal funds. Under the law, “no otherwise qualified individual with a disability shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity.”

The scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act has dramatically changed the scope of opportunities for individuals with disabilities who wish to participate in society as equal members. Improved access to public transportation, restaurants, businesses, state and national parks, and educational entities are but a few of the changes made possible by this statute.


Congress passed the ADAAA of 2008 and it was signed into law in January 2009.  The ADAAA was written to better provide definition to the intent of the ADA for the purposes of court interpretations and to further provide changes that apply to Section 504.  Relevant changes that relate to classroom accommodations include, but are not limited to:

  • The definition of "major life activities" was expanded to include learning, reading, concentration, and thinking.  Additionally, the definition of "major bodily functions" was expanded to include neurological and brain functions.
  • The ADAAA requires the limitation on major life activity be interpreted broadly.
  • Conditions that are episodic or in remission are covered when they are active.
  • Under the ADAAA a person cannot be denied protection simply because he or she uses a mitigating measure, such as taking medication or using a hearing aid.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

This section of the Rehabilitation Act was designed to ensure that the federal government itself would provide equal access to disabled citizens in terms of electronically distributed information and services. Section 508 requires that individuals with disabilities who are seeking information and services from federal agencies have access to that data in a way comparable to that provided by individuals without disabilities. This led to the adoption of standards for electronic accessibility such as webpages that could be easily used by blind consumers, or video clips within webpages that are captioned for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

 Although Section 508 does not specifically apply to entities outside the federal government*, it's impact has been far reaching. The accessibility standards for information technology that developed following its’ passage have been adopted and improved upon by other organizations. In addition, the Americans With Disabilities Act mandates equal access to electronic media. The combination of these laws has strengthened universal electronic access and promoted recognized standards and resources for web developers worldwide.

 *In March 2003, the General Counsel of the California Colleges Chancellor’s Office issued Legal Opinion M 03-09, which states that Section 508 applies to California community colleges. Therefore, information technology developed, purchased, or licensed by California community colleges must comply with the requirements of Section 508.