The Rights of Students with Disabilities

The first major legislation protecting college and university students with disabilities was the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — in particular, Section 504 of that statute.

According to Section 504, an otherwise qualified person with a disability may not, “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.”

The term “program or activity” includes all the operations of a college, university, or other post-secondary institution. As a recipient of federal funds, San Diego State University is subject to the requirements of Section 504.

Nearly twenty years after the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA holds that “no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment” of public accommodations. A “place of education” is deemed a public accommodation under the ADA.

In addition, the ADA requires that examinations or courses in licensing, certification or credentialing for post-secondary education purposes be offered “in a place and manner accessible to persons with disabilities or offer alternative accessible arrangements for such individuals.”

Under federal laws like Section 504 and the ADA, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of a person’s major life activities, a record of an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.

Both Section 504 and the ADA exclude certain conditions from what may be deemed a disability. Compulsive gambling, kleptomania and pyromania are not considered disabilities under either statute. In addition, transvestitism, transsexualism, pedophilia and “other sexual behavioral disorders” may not be claimed as disabilities.

Sometimes, court decisions or federal agency regulations may be relied upon in determining whether a particular condition is a disability. For example, some courts have held that obesity may be a disability under the ADA. Various federal agencies also have determined that “emotional or mental illness” and “specific learning disabilities” can be considered disabilities under Section 504.

Early federal legislation protecting the rights of persons with disabilities (such as the Education of the Handicapped Act of 1970) labeled those persons “handicapped.” But since the passage of the ADA, Congress has eliminated the use of that term. Today, nearly all such legislation refers to persons or individuals with disabilities.

In general, Section 504 holds that no qualified student with a disability may be excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or otherwise subjected to discrimination under any academic, occupational training, health insurance, counseling, financial aid, physical education, athletics, recreation, transportation or extracurricular program.

A qualified student is a student who meets the academic and technical standards requisite to admission or participation in the institution’s education program or activity.

An institution may need to modify certain academic requirements to ensure that students not be discriminated against on the basis of a disability. Such modifications might include changes in the length of time permitted to complete degree requirements, substitution of specific courses required for completing degree requirements, and changes to the manner in which certain courses are conducted.

Any academic requirements that are essential to the program of instruction, however, will generally not be regarded as discriminatory and, therefore, will not be subject to modification.

To further ensure against discrimination based on disability — especially one that constitutes an impairment of sensory, manual or speaking skills — an institution may make available auxiliary aids, such as taped texts, interpreters, readers, specially-adapted equipment, and similar services and actions.

San Diego State University does not discriminate on the basis of disability in the application, admission, participation, access or treatment of persons in any of SDSU’s instructional programs and activities. For accommodations and assistance, students with disabilities should contact San Diego State University’s Student Disability Services at 619-594-6473. Also available through the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights is the booklet Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities.

Students of SDSU who feel they have been victims of discrimination based on disability are encouraged to file a discrimination complaint with the Office of Employee Relations and Compliance. For information regarding these procedures, or complaints of unlawful discrimination and harassment, as well as the complaint forms, see Compliance Issues. Students may also lodge complaints with appropriate governmental agencies, such as the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education.