ADA 30

July 31st, 2020

The ADA & Post-Secondary Education: Why Accessibility is Still a Persistent Challenge

Picture this: You are a graduating high school student with a learning disability and you received specialized instructional services and accommodations through an individualized education program (IEP) during  your K-12 education years. The school conducted multiple evaluations and reevaluations starting when you were a child, your progress was monitored by a committee of educators and specialists on an annual basis, IEP revisions were made, and you participated (and assumed a leadership role) in your IEP and transition planning meetings. With a diploma in hand, you’ve even been accepted into a great college and you couldn’t be more excited to get started!

Before the start of the school year, you spoke with a counselor at the office of disability services  on campus to introduce yourself and let them know you are counting on their support. You learned that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) doesn’t apply anymore now that you’re no longer in high school. You were totally prepared to talk about your dyslexia and dysgraphia and the effective accommodations you received–that you still need them to circumvent weaknesses in reading and writing.  You shared with the counselor what worked: being given permission to record classroom lectures and discussions, being able to type or dictate instead of handwriting, having access to course notes and outlines, having access to digitized materials (usable with text-to-speech technology) and having a reader or extended time.  All of those accommodations would require no spending on the part of the college.  The conversation went well, and you eagerly anticipated the start of the semester.  

When school starts, you reconnect with the counselor in the disability service office and submit your disability documentation:  your most current  IEP and your most recent evaluation from 10th grade. And then receive this message. A message so many students receive every year across the country:

“I’m sorry. Before we can provide any services and supports, you’re going to need to submit  an updated comprehensive evaluation. This one is too old. We need to know that you still have dyslexia and dysgraphia. Until then, we can’t help you.  

You think: “This can’t be happening! I just explained to you that I’ve had a documented learning disability since I was in middle school, have relied on the services documented in my IEP, and gave you a copy of the paperwork that confirms my disability that entitled me to special education classification. Don’t you know that a learning disability doesn’t just disappear after high school?”

What went wrong? How could this happen? And what are you supposed to do, now that school is starting and you need help?

What the ADA SHOULD Do In this Situation

IDEA does not apply to colleges and universities. Instead, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers protections to students with disabilities in post-secondary institutions, and fortunately, it covers more people beyond those students who received accommodations under IDEA in elementary or secondary education settings. Under the ADA, there are different yet less stringent rules, so many more people with disabilities are protected under this law.

The ADA requires colleges and universities to provide “reasonable accommodations” to individuals who have a disability. The law defines a person with a disability as a person:

  1. “With a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  2. Who has a record of such an impairment; or
  3. Who is regarded as having such impairment.”

If you think that definition seems simple to meet, you’re right! A student who has an impairment that substantially limits their ability to read, concentrate, think, communicate, or learn, should qualify. That means people with learning disabilities qualify. When that student presents their “record” of having such a disability, they should be considered a person with a disability under the ADA, and as a result, they should receive reasonable accommodations. However, that is not happening consistently across the country. (For a thorough discussion of the ADA’s requirements, see NCLD’s FAQ on the topic.) 

To be clear, the ADA does not require colleges or universities to provide any specific services like tutoring or personalized instruction the way IDEA does. But it does require them to provide reasonable accommodations. What is reasonable? Accommodations cannot provide a student an unfair advantage or require colleges to significantly change to or lower the standards of the program. And accommodations cannot cost the college a lot of money either. For example, if a course requires students to work in a lab or complete “hands on” assignments, but a student can’t attend in person, the college is not required to change the “hands on” nature of the program to offer the course virtually because that makes a significant change to the program. But in most cases, they should provide accommodations such as extra time on tests, or allow the use of a laptop or other type of assistive technology. 

What actually happens on college campuses?

Even though the ADA says that any student with a disability is protected under the law, many colleges and universities—in an attempt to verify that the requested accommodations are needed and don’t provide an unfair advantage—require specific types of documentation as proof of disability status. In some instances, students are required to submit a new psychoeducational evaluation conducted by a  licensed professional. Schools might also insist that disability documentation be no more than 3 years old and that the tests and measures used be specifically normed on adult populations. Requirements vary from one institution to the next, and both timing and cost can pose huge barriers to students.  


Unfortunately, courts across the country have ruled that there is no consensus on the issue of accommodations. Some courts believe that colleges have a “duty to investigate” the types of accommodations a student needs and how well students can perform without those accommodations. Other courts disagree and don’t believe this duty exists. As a result, there is no simple rule for all colleges or universities to follow when it comes to how students should prove the way their disability affects their functioning (in academics, for example). This leaves students with disabilities at the mercy of these institutions. They are forced with a hard choice: find the money to pay for a new evaluation (if the college demands it) or struggle through (and perhaps underperform in) courses without needed  accommodations.

No student should have to confront this dilemma.  Colleges and universities should follow the simple standards set by the ADA and stop doubting students when they disclose their disability and request the accommodations they know, and in many cases, have already proven, they need. 

The Path forward

The vast majority of accommodations that students seek are not costly and are, indeed, “reasonable” as is described in law. More students with disabilities choose not to disclose their disabilities out of fear of repercussions and stigma than those who actually request accommodations. So why make it harder for those who do disclose their disability to actually get the support they need? 

For years, NCLD has worked with champions in Congress to address this issue through legislation. If passed, the Respond, Innovate, Succeed and Empower Act (RISE Act) (H.R. 3086 and S. 1585) would require colleges to accept a student’s IEP or 504 plan as proof of their disability. It wouldn’t guarantee that the student receives accommodations, but it would mean the student doesn’t have to pay for a costly new evaluation to prove what they already know—that they have a qualifying disability under the ADA. Passing this law is an essential next step in this fight for inclusion and equal opportunity.

It’s been 30 years since the ADA was passed, and more work remains to ensure equity and access for students with disabilities in college. For the intent of the ADA to be realized, we must all work toward building a true culture of inclusion, where students with disabilities are welcomed, encouraged to seek support, and empowered to be themselves, sharing their voices and their talents in ways that meaningfully contribute to campus communities and to society. 

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