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Higher Education and Students with Disabilities


The college of yesteryear is not the college of today. Students with disabilities comprise the most rapidly growing student population on many campuses. Higher education rights are delineated under Section III (public institutions) and IV (privately owned colleges which serve the public) of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Students have to be otherwise eligible for college which precludes individuals with disabilities who cannot make academic progression.

The three ADA definitions of disability are 1) having an impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities (walking, seeing, hearing, learning, breathing, etc.); 2) having a record of such an impairment; 3) being regarded as having an impairment. College students who meet the first definition are entitled to reasonable academic accommodations since they have current documentation to support disability and justification for accommodations. The other two definitions are safeguards against discriminatory policies for students with disability records or reputations.

ADA is very different than IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) which governs students in grades K-12. In college, students are considered to be adults with the expectation that they use or develop self-advocacy skills to receive accommodations. Colleges communicate directly with students, not parents, unless students provide authorization under FERPA – Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act

Students with disabilities are encouraged to inquire about the campus disability office or the disability campus official who reviews documentation for accommodations prior to the commencement of freshman year. It is the student’s responsibility to find out about the process for documentation submission required for reasonable accommodations. Each campus has its own system of informing professors about classroom and testing accommodators. Professors do not have the right to know student diagnoses, but they do have the right to know about classroom and testing accommodations.

Traditional accommodations include note takers in classrooms for students with learning/hearing/visual disabilities; sign language interpreters for students who communicate with American Sign Language (ASL); designated classroom computers with assistive software for students with visual disabilities; text books in alternative formats for students with print disabilities; and testing accommodations, such as extra time, scribes, and quiet locations, for students whose documentation supports them. Campuses are moving towards various technologies for students with a wide range of hearing disabilities, such as CART (Communication Access Real-time Translation) and new technologies for those with visual disabilities. Frequently, assistive technologies which target one disability benefit a broader range of students.

Accommodations are designed to help students remain competitive, and to provide parity, but not advantages. Students with disabilities are expected to conform to college policies. Course or assignment substitutions can be made if their disability prevents fulfillment of college expectations. For example, students with severe speech impediments can usually select a writing class as a substitute if a speech class is a requirement of their major. Not all students with disabilities, even in the first tier, are eligible for academic accommodations. They may choose to affiliate with the disability for advocacy and other opportunities, such as scholarships designated for students with disabilities or certain kinds of disabilities.

College students with disabilities also have to be aware of their responsibilities. Requests for accommodations need to be done in a timely manner. For example, students who need interpreters need to make arrangements prior to semester commencement. The same is true for students who require classroom note takers. Students who are eligible for accommodations but do not wish to be identified as such may choose not to come forward immediately, but they cannot then expect immediate accommodations, even for testing, unless they have followed the required protocol.

Students may also choose not to utilize their accommodations after coming forward. Parents may expect disability staff members to insist that students make use of accommodations, but that is not the case. As adults, students are free to render independent judgments. Parents may be surprised to discover that the attention given to their child in resource rooms and other special academic environments in K-12 is not available on campuses. Colleges are also not required under ADA to provide personal care attendants or class prompters of any kind.

Colleges are not responsible to ensure the happiness of students with disabilities, facilitate social acceptance, or make excuses for poor academic performance. When conflicts arise outside the purview ADA, common sense should be applied. Asthmatic students who cannot breathe in the prolonged presence of guide dogs take priority over students with visual disabilities. That means that guide-dog users may have to leave their dog in an office during the class.Additionally, colleges are mandated to facilitate building access for students, faculty and visitors with disabilities.

Students with disabilities who are otherwise qualified are entitled to higher education. They should visit campuses to which they intend to apply, inquire about the policies and procedures of the disability office or disability official, and have a full understanding of their rights and responsibilities. Some of this information can usually be found on the college website.

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