After high school, two laws continue to protect the rights of students with disabilities. You may have already heard of them since both laws affect people of all ages who have disabilities, including K–12 students. Instead of delving into the full legal jargon of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, this article will only answer questions relevant to you and your postsecondary education. Learn about your rights so that you can begin to advocate for yourself.


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Can I attend college if I have a disability?

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, and 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. While schools run by religious entities are not covered by the ADA, if they or their students receive any federal money whatsoever, they must comply with Section 504.

You may not:

  • Be asked to disclose whether you have a disability
  • Be denied admission based on your disability
  • Be excluded from a particular class, program, or activity based on your disability

You can, however, be denied admission into a school, program, or class based on other qualifications or lack thereof. If you do not meet minimum required scores, fail to submit a part of your application, or haven’t taken the appropriate prerequisites, a school is well within its rights to reject your application.

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a law, passed in 1990 and amended in 2008, that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in the public sphere. This includes schools, places of employment (that employ more than 15 individuals), public transportation, and anywhere else that is open to the public, even if it is a privately owned location (e.g., a private school, hotel, restaurant, or gym). All locations that the public can visit need to be accessible to individuals with disabilities and accommodations need to be given when necessary.

Who is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Anyone with a disability that substantially limits one or more major life activity is covered by the ADA, though the definition of “substantially limits” is not specified. Major life activities can range from breathing and seeing to being able to use the bathroom independently and working. The general rule of thumb is that a major life activity is something that contributes to the proper functioning of the human body (seeing, sleeping, hearing, talking, moving) or the proper functioning of internal organs. The 2008 amendments to the ADA expanded major life activities to include self-care, the ability to perform manual tasks, learning, thinking, and working, among others.

The ADA also protects people who have a record or history of having a substantially limiting impairment, who are viewed as having a disability even when they do not, and those who associate with people who have disabilities. If someone is “regarded as” having a disability and can prove that they’ve been discriminated against because of this perception, they are entitled to protections under the ADA. For example, someone who has a large, visible scar on their face, despite not having any limited functionality, may be perceived as having a disability and not hired for a position in which they regularly interact with the public. The parent of a student with disabilities may be discriminated against (for example, not invited to a work party for employees and their families). Therefore, both individuals with and without disabilities may be entitled to protections under the ADA.

How does the Americans with Disabilities Act protect me at college?

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

Specifically, within Title II, it states in Section 12132 that “Subject to the provisions of this subchapter, 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,” where a public entity is “(A) any State or local government; (B) any department, agency, special purpose district, or other instrumentality of a State or States or local government; and (C) the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, and any commuter authority (as defined in section 24102(4) of title 49).” Public colleges and universities are covered by Title II.

In Title III, Section 12182, it states, “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.” The previous section (12181) details 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.

Colleges and universities run by religious organizations are not covered by the ADA.

What is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973?

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 states, “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 7(20), shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participating in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…” It goes on to explicitly say that this applies to “a college, university, or other postsecondary institution, or a public system of higher education.” Essentially, if an agency, institution, or entity accepts federal financial assistance, or accepts students who receive federal financial aid, it is prohibited from discriminating against anyone based on their disability.

Does Section 504 define “disability” the same way as the ADA?

Yes. Section 7(20) of Section 504 defines an individual with a disability as “any person who has a disability as defined in Section 3 of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.”

How have my rights changed since high school?

If a school meets ADA and/or Section 504 guidelines, it does have certain legal responsibilities to its students who are disabled. It is not, however, accountable for as much as your high school was. K–12 schools are legally responsible for their students’ education. While working with a student and their parents, they must adhere to the law. They must pledge to identify and evaluate a student’s disabilities and then follow up with the relevant medical, educational, and auxiliary support. In college, the process is more of a call and response between the student, who makes the request, and the school, who answers the request.

IDEA (K–12) ADA and Section 504 (qualifying postsecondary schools)
Who is affected? All children with a disability until they graduate from high school or turn 22 (whichever comes first) Everyone with a disability, provided they are “otherwise qualified” to attend school
What rights are guaranteed? Access to free, appropriate public education (FAPE) Protection from discrimination on the basis of a disability
How is a disability assessed? School is legally responsible for identification and evaluation of students’ disabilities Student must provide documentation of the disability to the college (e.g., medical records, IEP from high school)
How are accommodations made? School develops and follows an IEP; may offer extra testing time or special education courses Student must request “reasonable accommodations” on their own; school must respond to the request to provide equal access to education for all students
Who is responsible for the provision of specialized equipment such as wheelchairs? School distributes necessary devices and aids School does not distribute necessary devices and aids; students secure their own
Are parents involved in the process? Yes; parents are actively involved No; students over 18 are adults in the eyes of the law
What happens if a school violates a student’s rights? Appeals process with school or legal action Appeals process with school or legal action

Do I have to disclose my disability to my college?

No, you are not legally required to disclose your disability to your school; it is voluntary. However, if you do not disclose your disability, your school does not have to provide you with any disability services, including proper housing accommodations, special technological support, or extra time on tests. If your disability requires such accommodations, it is in your best interest to provide your college with documentation from a medical professional that explains your disability. As it is illegal for colleges to discriminate against you based on your disability, it is usually best to share information about your condition with your college sooner rather than later to ensure that you receive the accommodations that you require.

If you choose to do so, you must provide your college with documentation from a medical professional that explains your disability. If there is a disability office or coordinator, this should be your first point of contact. If there is no designated office, you will want to turn to either the dean of students or your academic advisor. They will either be able to help you themselves or point you in the right direction. Instead of disclosing your disability to a particular professor but not others (which could be misconstrued as you asking for an unfair advantage in one class but not others), talk to the disability office or the dean so that they can disclose your disability to all of your professors at once. This will prevent miscommunications later on in your college career, as your disability will be officially documented.

When you meet with a disability coordinator, bring all relevant documents with you. This includes recent medical evaluations and your high school IEP. Be able to explain what accommodations you need (living in accessible housing, needing to take tests alone, help taking notes during classes, etc.) and how these accommodations will help with your specific disability. Your school may request specific documentation or additional documentation to what you’ve already shown (a treatment plan from within a certain time period, note from an M.D., etc.). You must bring the necessary proof to be given accommodations.

This is in stark contrast to what was required of you in high school. While your high school was tasked with identifying and evaluating your condition for you, in college, you are totally responsible.

If you choose not to disclose your disability and forego accommodations, you may not claim discrimination or invoke protections under the law. A student with an undisclosed disability may fail a math class that is required for a particular major. The student cannot, after the fact, claim that their disability hindered their ability to pass the class and request that the failed class be removed from their transcript and that they be allowed to continue in the major. A student who does not disclose their disability is assumed not to have a disability.

Likewise, a student who does disclose their disability and receives accommodations but still does not pass a particular class cannot blame their disability for the failure and expect to be allowed to continue in the major. Students must be given an equal opportunity to try, but if, even with accommodations, the student is not qualified, the school is within its rights to issue failing grades, bar admittance from particular programs, and or refuse admittance.

Can my college refuse my request for accommodations?

Yes, your college can refuse your accommodation request for a few reasons:

  • If providing the accommodation would put an excessive financial and/or administrative burden on the institution
  • If providing the accommodation would change the nature of an academic program or the school’s curriculum, including giving you an unfair advantage over other students, lowering academic standards, and significantly altering what is required of you to complete a class or program
  • If the accommodation requested is of a personal nature; colleges are not required to provide students with disabilities with personal care attendants, personal readers, or personal devices

If the school refuses to provide you with the specific accommodation you requested, it will likely suggest an alternative accommodation that accomplishes the same purpose. While the school is obligated to provide you with equal access to education to the maximum extent possible, you are not required to accept any offered accommodations.

What happens if I feel I am being discriminated against on the basis of my disability?

You have options if you feel that you are being illegally discriminated against:

  • File an appeal or complaint with your school through the disability office or dean of students; it is in your best interest to appeal or complain as soon as possible after the discriminatory event.
  • File a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education; complaints must be made within 180 days of the event or within 60 days of the completion of an appeal with your school.
    • You can submit your complaint online, by email, or by mail.
    • Your may use the Office of Civil Rights’ complaint form or write your own letter being sure to include your name and contact information; information about whom the discrimination affected; the name and contact information of the offending individual, business, or organization; a description of the discriminatory act; the dates of the offense; and a description of why the act was discriminatory.
  • File a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice; there is no limit to how long after the event you may file this type of complaint.
    • You can submit your complaint online or fax it to (202) 307-1197.
    • You may submit complaints by mail, but they will take longer to be processed due to security screenings.
      • US Department of Justice
        950 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
        Civil Rights Division
        Disability Rights Section - 1425 NYAV
        Washington D.C. 20530
    • If you need assistance filing your complaint, you may schedule an appointment with the Department of Justice by calling 1-800-514-0301 or 1-800-514-0383 (TTY).
    • Your complaint must include your name and contact information; the name and contact information of the offending individual, business, or organization; a description of the discriminatory act; the dates of the offense; copies of supporting documents; and information about how you wish to be communicated with in the future.
    • Allow up to three months to receive communication from the Department of Justice regarding your complaint.
  • File a lawsuit; for ADA and Section 504 violations, lawsuits must be filed with a U.S. District Court within two years of the date of discrimination.
    • You will likely need a lawyer, though self-representation in court is also an option.
    • This will be your most costly option.

Both the ADA and Section 504 prevent your institution from retaliating against you if you file an appeal, complaint, or lawsuit. This would constitute a new form of discrimination and is illegal. If you feel that there have been consequences from your institution after filing, you may have grounds for another complaint.

Page last updated: 04/2017