As a faculty member, your knowledge and understanding of key legislation and accommodation strategies will guide you as you strive to make education accessible for students with disabilities. A good starting point is a review of the purpose of accommodations, rights and responsibilities, legislative background, and strategy options.
Faculty Disability Resources
- Accommodations in the classroom allow students with apparent or non-apparent disabilities the same learning opportunities as their classmates.
- Students with disabilities often need support services and adjustments to level the playing field and allow for the same learning opportunities other students.
- Anti-discrimination laws protect students with disabilities from being denied equal access to academic material in the classroom.
- Accommodations promote full inclusion of the rising number of students with disabilities entering institutions of higher education.
As a faculty member in an institution of higher education, there are certain legal mandates that uphold the rights and responsibilities of faculty and qualified students with disabilities as they relate to making accommodations.
Faculty members have the right to:
- Maintain the rigor and the fundamental nature of their course content
- Require students to demonstrate their knowledge of crucial course content
- Negotiate an accommodation with the student and the Disability Service Office (DSO) if the accommodation seems unreasonable
- Request verification of a student’s eligibility for an accommodation—faculty can turn down the request for an accommodation without proper documentation. However, faculty should encourage the student to continue communicating about learning challenges and suggest that the student go to the DSO on campus to make an official request for an accommodation
Faculty members are responsible for:
- Implementing best practices in teaching to reach a diversity of learners
- Sharing information on how students can request an accommodation (Many universities and colleges require that an accommodation statement be included on every syllabus. Check with your DSO about the accommodation procedure on your campus.)
- Working with the Disability Service Office and with students with disabilities to make reasonable accommodations in a timely manner
- Having an awareness of campus resources available for students and faculty
- Maintaining confidentiality
Students with disabilities have the right to:
- Participate in higher education if they are qualified for admission
- Equal access to academic content and educational opportunities
- Participate in student activities
- Academic adjustments (reasonable accommodations)
- File a formal or informal complaint if discrimination is occurring
- Confidentiality of all disability-related information
Students with disabilities are responsible for:
- Providing appropriate documentation of their disability
- Advocating for their learning needs
- Connecting with the DSO and other student services
- Seeking a reasonable accommodation (when necessary) in a timely manner
To further understand your rights and responsibilities, it is helpful to understand the related legislative mandates. The following information will provide an overview of how these laws apply to faculty.
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (1990)
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973)
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990)
- Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (1998)
- Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1990)
For faculty who teach freshman level classes, it is especially helpful to understand K-12 legislation, most notably the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). As a result of IDEA, there is a distinct difference between the K-12 system and postsecondary education. IDEA is programmatic legislation that provides funding to states that meet the IDEA guidelines. This legislation actually has a “child find” component that seeks out qualified children with disabilities for service provision and empowers parents to be active partners in the planning of educational services.
Together with families, the K-12 system takes care of and advocates for students with disabilities, whereas the postsecondary system requires students to take the personal initiative to connect with needed services and support. As a result, some students come to college thinking their parents or the institution will advocate for them. They are unprepared to advocate for themselves, which may in turn lead to academic difficulties. If these students visit your office, thank them for taking initiative to discuss their learning needs and encourage them to also visit the DSO on campus to find out about options and supports that may be helpful to them. If an accommodation is needed, these students should start with the DSO.
Postsecondary Legislative Mandates
In higher education qualified students with disabilities should receive benefits and services comparable to those given their nondisabled peers primarily through two laws – The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Title II and III) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504 and 508). The mandates of the ADA apply to all institutions of higher education, regardless of the receipt of federal funds while Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act apply to colleges and universities receiving federal financial assistance. Additionally, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is another law to be aware of because it pertains to the confidentiality of students’ educational records.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973)
Section 504 ensures that any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance does not discriminate on the basis of disability. Section 504 states that, “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 7(20), shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…” In higher education Section 504 mandates that academic programs and student activities be accessible to all students including students with disabilities unless in so doing, an undue hardship is incurred.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990)
The ADA is wide-ranging legislation intended to make society more accessible to people with disabilities. The ADA extends the provisions of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 1973 to entities not receiving federal funding. It protects fundamental rights and extends equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities to the areas of public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications. According to the ADA, “no otherwise qualified individual with a disability shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity.”
Title II of the ADA ensures equal opportunity and access to state funded higher education programs (universities, community colleges and vocational schools) for otherwise qualified college students with disabilities.
Title III covers private colleges and vocational schools.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (1998)
Section 508 covers products and technologies procured by the Federal government, including computer hardware and software, Web sites, phone systems, fax machines, and copiers, among others. Section 508 requires Federal departments and agencies that develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology to ensure that Federal employees and members of the public with disabilities have access to and use of information and data comparable to that of the employees and members of the public without disabilities. Web access is a Section 508 consideration for many institutions of higher education.
Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
In general, FERPA requires institutions of postsecondary education to obtain written permission from students to release information from a student’s educational record. However, when it is necessary for school officials to share information with each other regarding a stu’s educational records, this can be done without consent, when there is a “legitimate educational interest” or, in cases where there may be a threat to health and safety, as well as a number of other extenuating circumstances (34 CFR § 99.31).
This law may come into play if a parent of a student with a disability were to contact faculty to discuss or get information about a student’s grades. FERPA also applies to disability information on file with the DSO or disclosed to faculty. This information is considered part of the educational record and is therefore, covered under FERPA.
Under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, a person with a disability is defined as any person who:
- has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities
- has a record of such impairment
- is regarded as having such an impairment
Examples of major life activities are: walking, seeing, speaking, hearing, breathing, learning, performing manual tasks, caring for oneself, and working. These are examples only. Other activities such as sitting, standing, lifting, or reading are also major life activities (EEOC, 1992). Thus, a student with a disability who needs accommodations must present the DSO with documentation that establishes a substantial limitation in a major life activity.
Therefore, a student with a disability who needs accommodations must present the DSO with documentation that establishes a substantial limitation in a major life activity.
To understand the purpose of accommodation as it applies to students with disabilities in higher education, it is important to understand the meaning of reasonable accommodation. The word, “reasonable” is part of the legal definition that requires accommodations to be effective but not excessive. Reasonable accommodation refers to adaptations or modifications made to the environment or policies and procedures aimed at reasonably lessening the impact of a disability-related limitation. For example, a student with a visual impairment may need to have his or her textbooks made available on audiotape. Remember, the focus of all accommodations is to mitigate the effects of the disability not to make sure that all students with disabilities are successful in college. The goal is to give the student with a disability the opportunity to demonstrate abilities and have equal access to the learning environment, programs and activities. Individualized accommodations are not designed to give the student an advantage over other students, to alter a fundamental aspect of the course, nor to weaken academic rigor.
To understand the purpose of accommodation as it applies to students with disabilities in higher education, it is important to understand the meaning of reasonable accommodation. The word, “reasonable” is part of the legal definition that requires accommodations to be effective but not excessive. Reasonable accommodation refers to adaptations aimed at reasonably lessening the impact of a disability-related limitation. For example, a student with a visual impairment may need to have his or her textbooks made available on audiotape. Remember, the focus of all accommodations is to mitigate the effects of the disability, not to make sure that all students with disabilities are successful in college. The goal is to give the student with a disability the opportunity to demonstrate abilities and equal access to the learning environment. Individualized accommodations are notdesigned to give the student an advantage over other students, to alter a fundamental aspect of the course, nor to weaken academic rigor.
Faculty are not required to make an accommodation that might cause an undue hardship or, “…an action that requires significant difficulty or expense.” As stated above, this includes fundamentally changing the course or weakening academic rigor.
Unacceptable vs. Acceptable Disability Language:
In general, use “person first” language when talking about a person with a disability.
- “Has” a disability
- Person with a disability
- “Afflicted by” or “suffers from” a disability
- Disabled person
Quite simply, the disability is only an aspect of a person. Each individual is a person first. For more information see “Unhandicap Your Language.”
***Accessibility By Design does not provide legal advice; consult administrators or your campus for these services.
- Identification of a student with a disability – Identification occurs in one of two ways:
- students have the opportunity to self identify to the DSO (Disability Service Office) before coming to school or after they get to campus and
- some students with disabilities may first approach faculty about their disability and need for an accommodation.
- Start with DSO – Regardless of how a student is identified, if he/she is seeking an accommodation he/she must start the process at the DSO. The DSO will match the student’s needs with an accommodation by evaluating the impact and functional limitations related to the indivi’s disability. Next, the DSO will look at how the disability affects the student’s major life activities and decide if an accommodation is needed in the academic environment.
- Faculty are notified – The DSO will give the student a verification of accommodation for each class. At this point, the DSO can contact faculty, but preferably the student will set up an appointment with each professor to discuss his/her learning and accommodation needs.
- Implementan Accommodation Plan – Write up a contract or plan of action as per university guidelines. Specify the type of accommodation, how it will be executed and under what conditions it will be provided.
- Evaluate – Outcomes during and after implementation.
Overview of Types of Accommodations
The following information is a general discussion of accommodation. For accommodation ideas for specific disabilities please see the Disability Information Modules on the ACCESS Project website.
When considering an accommodation first, always remember that the student with the disability is the expert on his/her disability. He/she knows what works or doesn’t work. Encourage the student to share his/her insights so that the most effective accommodation can be made.
While there are accommodations that are commonly helpful to people with certain disabilities, it is important to understand that accommodations are determined on an individual basis. One student may benefit by taping the lectures while another may not. There can also be variations in the accommodations a student uses from one class to another.
Accommodations Frequently Used by Disability Service Offices:
- Priority Registration: Students registered with their DSO are allowed priority registration (usually during the pre-registration period). This allows the student access to the registration system early to schedule classes according to their needs and desired work load. Early registration also helps the DSO and faculty make necessary accommodations as well as locate alternative text if needed.
- Assistive Technology: Computer/adaptive technology ensure equal access to technology and electronic information for students with disabilities.
- Alternative Format: Text books and print materials can be formatted to an alternative format to make them more accessible through a variety of mediums including assistive computer programs
- Alternative testing arrangements:Alternatives include extra time, a less distracting environment, provision of a reader/scribe, and use of a computer, including adaptive software and hardware.
- Note taking support: A fellow student volunteer may be recruited as a note taker or, if needed, a paid student or non-student. Students may also request copies of your lecture notes.
- Adjustable table height
- Interpreting: Sign & Oral interpreting can be provided.
Accommodations Frequently Provided by Faculty:
- Look for Digital Textbooks: Digital textbooks are available through many publishers. Before ordering texts for your class, check to see what books have digitized material. (Note that digital texts are only helpful if the content is accessible to Assistive Technology. Request accessible textbooks form publishers.)
- Plan Ahead: Notify the Disability Service Office of selected textbooks and materials needed for the semester as soon as possible.
- Provide a Syllabus Prior to the Beginning of Class: Having a syllabus ahead of time will help students with disabilities make necessary preparations. Include an accommodation statement on the syllabus. (Check with your DSO about the accommodation procedure on your campus.)
- Help with Structure: Make sure the syllabus clearly delineates expectations and due dates. Study guides, review sheets, and frequent opportunities for feedback are also helpful in providing structure and organization.
- Provide Multiple Methods of Presentation: Presenting information and ideas in multiple ways to address different learning styles.
- Encourage Multiple Methods of Expression: Consider accepting student projects in alternative formats: videos, photo essays, community research, email, and web publications, etc.
- Ensure accessible course materials/alternative format: Make sure curriculum materials (syllabus, notes, presentations, assignments, etc.) are available in an accessible format that can be used and manipulated by a computer (Word, HTML, RTF, PDF, etc.)
- Provide Guided Notes on the Web: Make structured notes available prior to lecture, in an accessible format that stays consistent throughout the term. This will help students who will not be able to follow notes or presentations during a lecture, having them ahead of time will allow them to follow along during class.
- Repeat or Paraphrase Questions and Responses
- Highlight Critical Features: Highlight important information in a variety of ways during lecture and in written materials. Specify to students what is important when lecturing; use visual and verbal cues to emphasize important information.
- Break large amounts of information or instructions into smaller segments
- Provide a less distracting environment (for in-class work)
- Allow Students to use Alternative Testing Strategies: Some students may benefit from a testing environment with fewer distractions or, provision of a reader/scribe, and use of a computer, including adaptive software and hardware. A student with a disability may ask for an alternative testing opportunity as an accommodation. The Disability Service Office will help to coordinate these services.
- Engage a student who Self Advocates Work in conjunction with students with disabilities, who disclose their individual needs, to determine a plan that’s effective for all involved.
- Furnish preferred seating in class: Seating in the front or another designated or “reserved” area of the class
- Extend time limits on assignments and tests (if reasonable)
- Permit student to move from a sitting position as needed
- Let students tape record lecture
- Change classroom location for accessibility reasons if necessary
- Allow assistive, adaptive devices
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
- ADA Home Page
- ADA Information Line
- ADA Title II Technical Assistance Manual
- ADA Title III Technical Assistance Manual
U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS),
Office of Civil Rights (OCR)
The Faculty Room is a site for faculty and administrators at postsecondary institutions to learn about how to create classroom environments and activities that maximize the learning of all students, including those with disabilities. This page is specific to faculty rights.
PACER Center – Champions for Children with Disabilities
Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Service’s (OSERS) Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) Rehabilitation Act legislation page.
A comprehensive website on learning disabilities for parents, teachers and other professionals.
A nonprofit grassroots organization whose members are individuals with learning disabilities, their families, and the professionals who work with them to advance the education and general welfare of children and adults with learning disabilities.