Looking for Guidance: References for Working with Disabilities

By: CLC Staff

Understanding where to look for help, and knowing what kind of help you’re getting, is a necessary aspect of a campus administrator’s job, never more so than in the case of disability accommodation.

With such a vast range of public opinions concerning disabilities, it can be tough to know where to look for concrete assistance on the subject. Fortunately, a number of sources have emerged as legitimate and respected voices of guidance, especially in the last decade or so. Some of these voices are legally binding, while others carry enough weight in their opinions to be just as effective as the mandatory ones.   

Federal Legislature

The principal sources of guidance for disability accommodation are the widely governing Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (specifically Section 504), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and the latter’s 2008 amendments.  These are the main bodies of work from which federal agencies, courts, and other involved parties have drawn in providing their own regulations.

Section 504 of the Rehab Act mandated no individual with a disability could be “subjected to any discrimination [solely by reason of his or her disability] under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” This made colleges and universities much more accessible than they had previously been.

The ADA builds on the Rehab Act with more wide-ranging provisions, the general aim being the eradication of discrimination based on disability. And the 2008 amendments to the ADA widened the definitions of the “major life activities,” which a condition must significantly alter in order to be considered a disability, thereby altering the definition of disability itself and opening the law’s protective measures to more people. These amendments suggested governing bodies such as a university administration would do well to focus more on the qualifications and accommodation requests of a disabled individual, and less on whether that individual could be considered protected under the law.

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The Impact of Court Cases

Recent years have seen a great number of cases concerning disabilities and their accommodations in all levels of court, where the decisions made often have real impact on parties outside of the case itself. While not legally binding to those outside parties, case results can provide answers to certain grey areas in which administrators may unwittingly find themselves, prompting them to adopt the court’s decision in their own situations, or at least be guided by it.

In North v. Widener University, where a complainant with ADHD was bringing action against the school for unjust dismissal, the presiding judge decided the student’s mention of “medications for behavior” in his admission essay was not sufficient notice of his disability for the school’s staff, rendering his complaint moot. These are the kind of judgment calls that are not always answered by federal legislature, and thus being well informed and up to date on relevant court proceedings is an important part of your toolbox for making hard decisions such as these on campus.

Helpful Organizations

Even with all of this material, there will likely still be problems on campus that cannot be easily answered. A situation involving animals in residence, for example, involves not just the ADA and Section 504 but the Fair Housing Act as well, with overlapping sections of each. The ADA’s Title II and Title III legislature, the sections with the most influence on educational institutions, do not directly address the role of animals as accommodations, and so administrators must turn elsewhere for help.

Posted in Student Rights

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