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Discrimination Against Disabled Students in Higher Learning

There are two federal laws that prohibit disability discrimination in higher education. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) Both laws provide similar protections to both students (or those applying to become students) with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination based on disability at any public and private schools, but does not apply to religious schools.

The Rehabilitation Act (section 504) prohibits discrimination based on disability at any school, including religious schools if those schools receive federal funds, such as student financial aid loan programs.


“To be protected by the ADA, one must have a disability, which is defined by the ADA as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment”. – ADA.gov

An “impairment” is something that limits a major life activity. It is considered “limited” if it makes achieving the activity more difficult. An impairment may be substantially limiting if it restricts a disabled person’s ability to perform a major life activity when compared to nondisabled people.

Examples (not exhaustive) of disabilities might include:

  • Sensory issues making it hard to read/listen/see in traditional class setting
  • Motor issues that inhibit walking, climbing stairs, or staying standing
  • Involuntary or urgent body needs
  • Cognitive impairment that makes focus, concentration, or learning more difficult
  • Emotional or behavioral disorders that make socialization more difficult

Disabilities do not need to be “visible”.


“Section 504 and the ADA define the terms “handicap” or “disability” with respect to an individual to mean a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such an individual. Included in the definition are people who have a record of such an impairment, or are regarded as having such an impairment.” – HHS.gov

The definition of disability under Section 504 and the ADA are not the same definitions used to determine eligibility in programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).


“Yes. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandate equal access to postsecondary institutions for students with disabilities. This includes: 

  • public universities
  • vocational schools
  • community colleges
  • private institutions 

Almost all institutions are affected by either the ADA or Section 504. All private and public colleges run by nonreligious entities must obey the laws set forth by the ADA. If a school also receives federal financial assistance or allows its students to receive federal financial aid, it must also adhere to Section 504.” – studentcaffe.com 


In both Title II (Public Services) and Title III (Public Accommodations and Services Operated by Private Entities), the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination based on disability.

Title II, Section 12132:

“…no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity,” 

Public colleges and universities are covered by Title II.

Title III, Section 12182:

“No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.” Section (12181) clarifies that this applies to “a nursery, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate private school, or other place of education.” 

Private colleges and universities are covered by Title III.

These protections are not all automatic. Since disabilities can vary significantly, the responsibility is on the student to make the disability office/r aware of what accommodations they need to be able to meet those standards. This often comes in the form of requesting “reasonable accommodations”


“Reasonable accommodations are modifications or adjustments to the tasks, environment or to the way things are usually done that enable individuals with disabilities to have an equal opportunity to participate in an academic program or a job.” – American Psychological Association

“Reasonable accommodations are adjustments or modifications made to a school policy, or specific supports or services provided to a student with a disability, that enable the student to participate in school programs, including admissions, academics, vocational education, online and distance education courses, housing, physical education, athletics, recreation, extracurricular activities, transportation, counseling, health insurance (covering both physical and psychiatric disabilities), and financial aid.” – LegalAidAtWork.org

Whether a particular accommodation request is “reasonable” depends upon the situation and the type of program. This is where things get tricky. The accommodation can’t be overly costly or disruptive for the school. Neither can it be for the student’s personal use only. 

The laws say that students may not be charged for these supports and services. The school may pay for them by helping a student obtain reimbursement from an outside organization.

Unlike in K-12, in postsecondary schools, the student is responsible for identifying and documenting their disability and requesting specific supports, services, and other accommodations to meet her needs.


Yes, but on with clear reasons such as:

  • Providing the accommodation puts an excessive financial and/or administrative burden on the institution
  • Providing the accommodation would change the nature of the academic program or the school’s curriculum. That includes lowering academic standards, and significantly altering what is required of you to complete a class or program
  • The accommodation would give you an unfair advantage over other students 
  • If the requested accommodation is personal in nature, such as personal care attendants, personal readers, or personal devices

If the school refuses to provide you with the specific accommodation you requested, they may suggest an alternative, effective accommodation. 

The school is obligated to provide you with equal access to education to the maximum extent possible, but you don’t have to accept their accommodation offer.

Disability discrimination in higher learning is against the law, but the burden falls heavily on the student to pursue accommodations. The disabled student therefore must know their rights and how to achieve them. That is, in part, the purpose of this article.





jim patients rising

As the Director of Patient Outreach at Patients Rising, Jim works very closely with the people to help them tell their stories. Jim is a Columbia University trained writing consultant and has worked closely with writers of all levels of skill to help them find and refine their voices. He is a writer, editor, author and certified medical assistant with over 20 years of experience in healthcare. Jim has spent over two decades in clinical care and research at some of New York’s biggest health institutions doing hands-on patient care, education and advocacy for rare disease patients. He has worked with several non-profit patient support organizations doing outreach, advocacy and creating educational content. Twitter Linkedin

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