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ADA and Understanding Disability Policy and Rights

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and how does it affect education?

Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) was the culmination of decades of progress for disabilities rights. The movement began as an outshoot of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, gained momentum with the Rehabilitation Act in the 1970s, and reached its completion with the ADA, which protects people with disabilities from discrimination.

I. Qualified Individuals with Disabilities

The ADA defines disabilities broadly, recognizing a wide range of disabilities, from obvious physical disabilities to learning or physiological disabilities- the more common disabilities at colleges and universities.

To qualify as an individual with a disability under the ADA, a person needs 1.) a physical or mental impairment, that 2.) substantially limits 3.) a major life activity.

  1. Physical or Mental Impairment- Physical and mental impairments are conditions that impair a person's “major normal and healthy body and mental functions.” Specifically, physical impairments are physiological disorders that affect a body system (e.g. musculoskeletal or respiratory) and mental impairments are mental disorders such as emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.
  2. Substantial Limitation – Substantial limitation considers how an impairment affects a person, and typically uses a combinational three-pronged test of severity, duration, and expected impact. Applying this to concrete examples, if someone is slightly nearsighted, he has a physiological condition that impairs a special sense organ. However, this is not a significant impairment, and fails to meet the substantial limitation test. Or if someone has the flu, many body systems may be severely impaired, however, the flu is a temporary condition and does not qualify as a disability. Or suppose someone has an asthmatic condition that is triggered by running marathons. This would not be a disability even though it’s a physiological impairment and will permanently exist during the person’s life, because the asthmatic condition is expected to happen rarely, if at all, and this has little impact on that person’s life. Ultimately, the substantial limitation requirement tests for a sufficient degree of impairment.
  3. Major Life Activity – The major life activity specification requires that an impairment renders one unable to perform a basic life activity that can be performed by an average person. Examples of basic life activities include walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing , learning, performing manual tasks, caring for oneself, working, sitting, standing and lifting. Many more examples exist, but the general gist is that the impairment affects a basic and important life activity.
II. Reasonable Accommodations

Once someone has documented that he is disabled by showing that he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, then the organization must provide reasonable accommodation to that person. For publicly-funded colleges and universities, this means that they have to accommodate students with disabilities by ensuring that students with disabilities have access to academic and university programs.

Different Regulations for College and High School Education

Many parents of students with disabilities and students with disabilities themselves are familiar with the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is the primary law related to students with disabilities in K-12 settings. While IDEA and the ADA both protect students with disabilities, the laws are not the same and it is important to understand their differences.

IDEA requires schools to provide education in the “least restrictive environment” possible. To meet these standards, administrators and teachers will work with parents and students to develop individual education plans (IEPs) that allow students to participate in regular education classes as much as possible. Additionally, teachers sometimes make personal decisions to modify curriculums to meet the students’ needs outside of what has been legally mandated. In essence, the purpose of IDEA is to ensure that every student succeeds.  In contrast, the purpose of the ADA is to ensure that every student is given access to educational opportunities. Thus, the ADA prohibits discrimination in the admissions process and requires colleges to accommodate students with disabilities by making classrooms physically accessible or other reasonable considerations. Under the ADA, colleges must provide access for students with disabilities. It is up to the student to make the most of those opportunities.

504 plans (derived from §504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) apply to high schools and colleges; however, each uses them differently. In high school, schools are required to develop 504 plans (or IEP plans) to secure reasonable accommodations for each student. In college, 504 plans are helpful information for the Office of Disability Services, but they are insufficient on their own to secure accommodations.

For More Information

Visit the William & Mary Compliance and Policy Office.