The Rights of Disabled College Students

Students with disabilities in public K-12 schools are entitled to special services that will engender a successful educational experience. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) specified these rights in 1973 and continues to protect them. The IDEA mandates that public K-12 schools identify student’s disabilities and accommodate their needs. It calls for Individualized Education Programs (IEP’s) for disabled K-12 students.

Unfortunately, the IDEA doesn’t apply to college students. However, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also protects the rights of disabled students. This is a civil rights law that, among other things, prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in Federally funded schools from K-12 on up. Colleges receive Federal funds, so they must comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by developing a 504 Plan for disabled student.

The Transition to College

The rights of disabled students change when they enter college as they transition from IDEA to Rehabilitation Act protections.  The differences are shown below in Figure A:

Figure A: Differences Between IEP’s and 504 Plans

                                                                                                   Source: A Day in Your Shoes

IEP’s only cover disabilities that  fit into one of the IDEA eligibility categories. An IEP includes specially designed instruction, has goals, monitors progress, and provides accommodations. Parents are involved in the development of an IEP and meet annually with the school to review progress and consider improvements.

504 Plans are intended to provide accommodations that give disabled students access to an education that is the same as mainstream students. Plans cover all disabilities, but they are not special education programs. They do not include goals or progress monitoring. Colleges do not need to obtain parental input into the development of a 504 Plan and they may change it without parental approval.

Qualifications Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 504 defines someone who is qualified for a 504 Plan in college as an “Individual with a disability … which substantially limits one or more of such person’s major life activities.”  Colleges solicit input from the student’s doctors, family, teachers, and service providers in determining if a 504 Plan is justified, and if so, what it should entail.

Generally speaking, a student qualifies for a 504 Plan if they have physical or mental impairments that affect or limit their ability to:

  • Walk, breathe, eat, or sleep
  • Communicate, see, hear, or speak
  • Read, concentrate, think, or learn
  • Stand, bend, lift, or work

Accommodations Under 504 Plans

There are no specific requirements for what is to be included in a 504 Plan. The goal is for disabled students to be accommodated in such a way that they can be educated on equal terms with other students.

Examples of accommodations that a college may provide include the following:

  • Preferential seating
  • Extended time on tests and assignments
  • Reduced homework or classwork
  • Verbal, visual, or technology aids
  • Modified textbooks or audio-video materials
  • Behavior management support
  • Adjusted class schedules
  • Adjusted grading methodologies
  • Verbal rather than written testing
  • Excused lateness, absence, or missed classwork
  • Pre-approved nurse’s office visits and accompaniment to visits
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy

Colleges develop 504 Plans that they think are reasonable. Each college defines reasonable as they see fit. Some offer the bare minimum while others are more generous.

The 504 Plan Process

A disabled student meets with a coordinator in the college’s Disability Support Services (DSS) office. The coordinator determines if the student meets the requirements of Section 504. If so, he or she develops a 504 Plan for the student.

When the 504 Plan is finalized, a letter stating the accommodations to be provided is given to the student. If the student and their family are dissatisfied with the Plan, they may appeal to the U.S. Office for Civil Rights or the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

Under a 504 Plan, a disabled student is not guaranteed to progress satisfactorily, as is the case with an IEP. However, at its discretion, a college may pursue a different approach under a new 504 Plan in an attempt to remedy the student’s difficulties.

Disabled college students must become their own advocates in order to ensure that they receive the accommodations to which they’re entitled. Therefore, it’s to their advantage to understand Section 504 and its compliance options.

Support for Students on the Autism Spectrum

The independence of college life creates many decisions that students must make for the first time. This is a challenge for all students, especially those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who face difficulties such as impaired social and communication skills, repetitive behaviors, and narrow interests. These are compounded by the general lack of understanding of ASD among faculty, staff, and peers. As noted above, disabled students are burdened with the need to advocate for themselves, a task that is particularly problematic for ASD students.

Disabled students should research and identify colleges with reputations for welcoming disabled students and providing exceptional support for them. We advise disabled students to apply mainly to colleges that fit this description. In the case of ASD students, at least 60 colleges offer autism support programs such as social skills training, support groups, mentors, tutors trained in working with ASD students, and time-management workshops.


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