Under the provisions of Section 504, universities may not discriminate in the recruitment, admission, educational process, or treatment of students. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provides that “… No otherwise qualified person with a disability in the United States … shall, solely by reason of … disability, be denied the benefits of, be excluded from participation in, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
A person with a disability
This definition includes “… any person who (1) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment.”
A qualified person with a disability
This narrows the meaning to include only a person “ … who meets the academic and technical standards requisite to admission or participation in the education program or activity.”
Students who have identified themselves, provided documentation of disability, and requested reasonable accommodations are entitled to receive approved modifications of programs, appropriate academic adjustments, or auxiliary aids that enable them to participate in and benefit from all educational programs and activities.
Section 504 protects the rights of qualified individuals who have disabilities such as the examples included in the following list.
Blindness or visual impairment
Traumatic brain or spinal cord injury
Deafness or hearing impairment
Orthopedic or mobility impairment
Spinal cord injury
Other chronic conditions, such as multiple sclerosis
Students with Visual Impairments
Modifications and accommodations for students with visual impairments include:
providing services such as readers for students with blindness, visual impairments or learning disabilities
providing modifications, substitutions, or waivers of courses in major fields of study or degree requirements on a case-by-case basis (such accommodation need not be made if the institution can demonstrate that the changes requested would substantially alter essential elements of the course or program)
allowing extra time to complete exams
permitting exams to be individually proctored, read orally, dictated, or typed
using alternate ways for students to demonstrate course mastery
permitting the use of computer software programs or other assistive technological devices to assist in test taking and study skills.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act contains more specific information about compliance issues in post secondary education than the ADA.
Recent Legal Decisions – In General
According to recent court decisions, students who have provided documentation of their disability are not required to assume the responsibility for securing that accommodation. The university must provide reasonable accommodation for a student’s known disability so that the student has an equal opportunity to participate in the courses, activities, or programs. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) ruled that a university may not charge students for necessary accommodations. It also decided that the expense of accommodation is not considered to be an undue hardship for the university.
The entire financial resources of the university are considered rather than that of any single department or college when determining hardship. The name of the Section 504 coordinator must be identified in recruiting materials such as application forms and school bulletins.
If a visually impaired student is enrolled in a class, the teacher must provide all handouts in the alternate format type requested by the student. Also, all alternate format handouts must be made available to students on the same day they are distributed to students receiving print handouts.
The instructor must make course material on reserve in the library available in alternate formats for students who are blind or visually impaired.
The university may not use as sole criteria for admission or rejection a test that has been shown to be discriminatory for persons with disabilities, including those with visual impairments.
If the testing procedure puts a student with a disability at a disadvantage based on a documented disability, the form of an exam must be altered. There may be an exception, however, when the purpose of the test is to measure a particular skill. And, the university may refuse a student’s request for an accommodation if it is not specifically addressed in the student’s documentation.
Extended time is a reasonable accommodation for a student whose documentation specifically calls for it. The university is required to ensure that the student is provided additional time to complete tests and/or course work to provide an equal opportunity for that student.
Accommodations for testing such as readers, writers or the use of adaptive equipment must be provided for a student with a documented disability.
Scholarships based on standardized test scores must allow for accommodations for students with documented disabilities.
Diagnostic information regarding a student’s disability is confidential. Faculty and staff need only know the accommodations that are necessary to guarantee an equal opportunity for the student.
While instructors have academic freedom to develop coursework, presentation and testing methods, they do not have a choice about whether they will provide special aids and services for students with documented disabilities in the classroom. An individual faculty member who fails to provide an accommodation to a student with a documented disability may be held personally liable.
How to Get Alternate Formats
If you have a visual impairment and will be attending a college or university, you will want to find out how to contact the Disabled Student Services Office for that institution. The sooner documentation, planning and coordination can begin, the easier and more beneficial your educational experience can be. Some schools have the equipment and experience needed to produce handouts, references, textbooks and tests in braille, large print or audio tape. Others will contract with outside vendors. All producers of alternate formats, however, will require some advance notice to enable them to provide your books on time to keep up with your class syllabus. Other resources who may help you get accessible materials are your vocational rehabilitation counselor or your local commission for the blind.