By Mira Bhattacharya, Natalie Burdsall, Morgane Hanley, Aanuoluwapo Omoleye
Since 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, universities throughout the United States have made notable progress in improving accessibility for students with disabilities. However, there are still countless barriers that stand in the way of achieving true equity. One of the best ways to prepare for these barriers is to learn from people who have faced them before. This webpage uplifts the stories of students with disabilities who have experienced barriers within higher education, and highlights the various avenues they have taken to overcome them. As a resource designed by students with disabilities for students with disabilities, this webpage provides an intimate look at what it is like to be a college student with a disability, and ultimately identifies valuable ways we can advocate for our needs.
What Is the ADA?
The ADA is a federal law that legally prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. It protects disability rights through five sections:
Title I – Employment: Guarantees equal employment opportunities by making it illegal to not hire somebody due to their disability and ensuring that employers must provide employees with “reasonable accommodations” in the workplace. This law only applies to employers with 15 or more employees.
Title II – State and Local Government: Guarantees equal access to services and programs provided by local and state governments. This includes but is not limited to accessible public transportation, health care, recreation, social services, voting, courts and more. Public entities with 50 or more employees were required to develop a plan to ensure accessibility in programs and services by 1992.
Title III – Public Accommodations: Guarantees protection from discrimination and access to accommodations in private spaces that serve a public good or need such as restaurants, private schools, movie theaters, airports, stores, hospitals, and more. Required building modifications only apply to newly constructed buildings and require changes to make spaces more accessible only if it can be done easily and without a significant financial impact. Also requires patrons to engage in accessible communication with people with vision, hearing and speech related disabilities.
Title IV – Telecommunications: Guarantees access to phone and internet services for people with hearing and speech related disabilities by requiring companies to provide accessibility features. Also ensured closed captioning of all federally funded public service announcements.
Title V – Miscellaneous Provisions: Outlines relationship between ADA and other laws, that disclosure of disability is not required to receive accommodation, protection against retaliation and coercion towards people with disabilities, and more (ADA National Network).
The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) passed in 2008 broadened the definition of disability under the ADA to ensure a more inclusive and holistic definition that includes and protects more people under the law. Among other changes, it also prohibits employer use of qualification standards, tests and selection criteria requirements unless it can be proved to be directly applicable to the type of work required (“ADA”).
March 12, 1990: Wheels of Justice march between the White House and U.S Capitol Building, demanding for Congress to pass the ADA.(Used by permission. © Tom Olin Collection. The University of Toledo Libraries)
What Other Protections Exist for People with Disabilities?
The 504 Rehabilitation Act
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a national law safeguarding qualified individuals against discrimination based on their disabilities. It applies to organizations and employers receiving financial assistance from any Federal department, such as the U.S.. Department of Health and Human Services. Protected individuals are those with physical or mental impairments substantially limiting major life activities, including caring for oneself, walking, seeing, hearing, and working. Section 504 prohibits discrimination in healthcare and human services settings, addressing service availability, accessibility, delivery, employment, and administrative activities of federally assisted organizations. It forbids denying qualified individuals equal opportunities in federally funded programs, services, or benefits, along with access to them due to physical barriers. Per Section 504, employers must provide reasonable accommodations, unless causing undue hardship, for qualified individuals with disabilities in employment settings. The law emphasizes equal participation and access for individuals with disabilities in various aspects of public life.
The Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law passed in 1968 that is designed to prevent discrimination in housing based on disability, race, color, national origin, religion, sex, and familial status. The FHA applies to both private and public housing, and is enforced by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The FHA is particularly important for people with disabilities, as it affirms their right to request reasonable accommodations and modifications from housing providers to ensure equal and accessible housing opportunities. Reasonable accommodations involve changes to rules, policies, or services to provide equal opportunities, while reasonable modifications allow renters with disabilities to make accessibility changes to their dwellings at their expense. The law also mandates that new multifamily housing units and apartments be designed and constructed to be accessible. The FHA contributes to greater housing opportunities for people with disabilities and prohibits discrimination, such as denying the use of service animals, in an effort to foster a more inclusive and accessible housing environment. Overall, the FHA promotes education, advocacy, and awareness in an effort to foster equal housing opportunities for marginalized individuals, including people with disabilities.
How the ADA Applies to College Students
College students with disabilities are covered by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Title II protects students at state and federally-funded colleges, while Title III, which covers public accommodation, protects students at privately-funded colleges.
Accessible Facilities and Architecture
It is required for private and public colleges to ensure that their buildings, classrooms, and facilities are accessible to individuals with disabilities. They must follow ADA architectural standards to make sure their spaces are accessible to persons with disabilities. However, private universities are allowed to only fix barriers if they are easily achievable without much burden toward expenses. This means they are not held to the same standards as public universities.
Aids and Services
Both private and public colleges must provide necessary aids and services to ensure effective support, communication, and access for students with disabilities. This might include sign language interpreters, assistive technologies, note-taking assistance, counseling services, braille services, accessible materials, or other accommodations to help students with disabilities participate fully and equitably. Students are also allowed to bring their own emotional and/or service support animals to support them through college.
Academic Policy Adjustments
Colleges are required to make reasonable academic adjustments and policy modifications to ensure that students with disabilities have equal opportunities. This might involve extended time for exams, modified attendance policies, course delivery formats, alternative testing arrangements, and more.
Colleges cannot discriminate against students with disabilities in any aspect of education and college life. They must provide equal opportunities and a level playing field by ensuring fair treatment in admissions, programs, and services.
Interviews: Learning from Experience
One of the best ways to develop self-advocacy skills is to learn about the lived experiences of other disabled students. Below is a list of a variety of interviews, ranging from written responses to video recordings. Each interview details a student’s experience with self advocacy as a disabled person, and how the ADA influenced outcomes, if at all
Jordan Colonna written responses
Cases: Learning from Legal Action
Legal action, including lawsuits, letters to general counsel, and petitions, plays a crucial role in ensuring that disabled students have the opportunity to succeed in higher education. Legal action helps enforce the legal rights of students with disabilities, resolve disputes, maintain institutional accountability, mitigate discrimination, set precedents within the realm of disability rights for students pursuing higher education. The following cases illustrate the different paths and outcomes of legal action taken to affirm the rights of higher education students with disabilities.
National Association of the Deaf V. Harvard
In 2015, the National Association of the Deaf filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court against Harvard because many of Harvard’s online resources did not have captioning or suitable captioning. After two failed attempts to dismiss the case, Harvard finally reached a settlement in 2019 and announced that it would improve its online accessibility measures. The university agreed to caption all future content and caption existing content upon request (“National”).
SuShawn Seller V. University of Rio Grande
In 2012, SuShawn Seller, a nursing student, brought action against the University of Rio Grande for violation of the ADA and Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Sargus). She claimed that the university had not adequately accommodated her disability resulting in her failing her final exam by three points. Seller asked for a point adjustment to her exam or the opportunity to retake the exam; however, she was not permitted to continue taking courses while her request was being processed. Having to delay her coursework would ultimately affect the required employment terms of her Veterans Administration position and could cause her to lose her job. Seller requested a temporary restraining order to allow her to continue courses during the processing period. After review, the Court ruled in her favor allowing her to continue courses under the temporary restraining order, but also decided that the university could prohibit her interaction with patient care during this time (Sargus).
Payan V. Los Angeles Community College District
In 2017, Roy Payan and Portia Mason, two blind students attending Los Angeles Community College District, filed a lawsuit with the National Federation of the Blind for violating the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The students stated that across several classes class content, material and assignments were extremely inaccessible and as a result they were unable to complete all coursework and received grades that did not reflect their abilities (Wilson). Payan also stated that a professor even told him that he should not come to class due to his blindness (Weissman). The Court sided with the students stating that the school discriminated against students by not providing accessible materials. When the case was appealed by the 9th Circuit, it was decided that the scope of discrimination extended beyond the “disparate impact” initially ruled (“Payan”).
U.S. V. Regents of the University of California
In 2014, the National Association of the Deaf filed a complaint to the Department of Justice stating that thousands of virtual University of California (U.C.) Berkeley course material, content, and lectures were not accessible to students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing. In 2016, the Department of Justice agreed that an ADA violation was occurring, and instructed U.C. Berkeley to address the concerns and ensure compliance with the law. As of 2021, U.C. Berkeley did not adequately address the violation, causing the United States government to fill a complaint and consent decree to address the violation of Title II of the ADA in 2022 “(UC Berkeley,” Civil Rights Division)
The interviews and case studies provide insight into how disabled students can take action to ensure their rights are upheld, but there are many more avenues for finding support. Taking advantage of accessibility/disability centers on campus is one such example. All public universities have an office that coordinates accommodations for students with disabilities – this could be a great place to start. They often provide a wide array of resources, ranging from eligibility documentation and assistive technology to computing resources and transportation. They serve as advocates by collaborating with staff and faculty to adopt and advance inclusive campus policies and culture, and to ensure equal access and a level playing field in education and campus life. Although private universities are not held to the same standards, they frequently still have an accessibility/disability center that could be useful for disabled students. To find the accessibility/disability center at your college, try searching your college name with “disability center” online.
Student clubs are another valuable resource for disabled students. Colleges often have a plethora of clubs on campus, which can include a disability-focused club. For example, U.C. Berkeley has a club called the Berkeley Disabled Students Commision under its student government, where students with disabilities gather to host meetings, events, educational and community workshops, and more. This creates a sense of community among disabled students, and builds a network of support that can be hugely beneficial when facing barriers to accessibility. To find out if your campus has a disability club, you can look for a club directory (often only available to current students and can be found on the college’s website). If there isn’t a disability club at your college, don’t let this stop you. Instead, you can consider starting one of your own.
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is a division of the U.S. Department of Education that was created to help ensure compliance with Section 504 and the ADA, including the ADA Amendment Act of 2008. The OCR investigates and addresses allegations concerning educational institutions that receive federal funds or are public entities, and are accused of failing to safeguard students from disability-based harassment. Upon identifying concerns or violations, these institutions often resolve issues through agreements mandating the adoption of effective anti-harassment policies, staff and student training, addressing specific incidents, and taking measures to reinstate a nondiscriminatory environment. Also, OCR undertakes actions to remind schools of their responsibility to ensure a nondiscriminatory environment. OCR’s field offices collaborate with state and local education and law enforcement agencies, engaging in various technical assistance activities. The aim is to encourage educational institutions to enhance their anti-harassment policies and procedures and to support students and parents in working with schools to strengthen the schools’ ability to combat harassment. OCR can be https://ocrcas.ed.gov/contact-ocr contacted via submitting an online complaint form, going to their physical office, or by phone.
Grassroots organizing also helps support students with disabilities to succeed in higher education. Grassroots movements involve individuals getting together at the local level to address common concerns and create changes. Broadly speaking, grassroots movements help bring about visibility, policy changes, effective collaboration, along with raising awareness and increasing education about the importance of disability rights and justice within higher education. For example, direct action is a type of grassroots organizing and may involve students with disabilities organizing a protest on their college campus to highlight the lack of accessible dormitories on campus, thus prompting the administration to take action in a timely manner. One way students can join grassroots organizing efforts is by creating petitions and posting them on social media and or around their respective campuses.
Some resources are dedicated to specific career pathways or academic fields. For example, Docs with Disabilities is an “initiative [that] uses research, education, and sharing of stories to drive change in perceptions, disability policy, and procedures in health professions, biomedical and science education.” Docs with Disabilities has its own podcast and launched the Disability Research in Academic Medicine consortium to promote research focused on disability inclusion in medical education. Similarly, the Disability Rights Bar Association (DRBA) focuses on serving disabled individuals interested in pursuing or currently working in the legal profession. The DRBA consists of “an online network of attorneys who specialize in disability civil rights law. Through the DRBA, disability rights attorneys share information, coordinate litigation and other legal representation strategies, and mentor lawyers and law students who are new to disability rights practice.” Students interested in using such resources can consider becoming a member of these organizations, such as a student member of the DRBA.
In addition to resources focused on specific careers, there are also resources that focus on students with specific types of disabilities. For example, Mentra, a neurodiversity employment network, focuses on connecting neurodiverse individuals with neurodiversity affirming and culturally sensitive employers. Another such organization is the student division of National Federation of the Blind which focuses on providing blind students from across the country with self-support networks and various other resources. Students interested in career specific resources can apply to these respective programs such as by signing up for a free Mentra account.
This is not an exhaustive list – there are many more resources available for disabled students….
Limits of the ADA and How to Address Them
See Mira comments above – how to handle ADA violations (e.g. filing a complaint, ADA mediation program)
MLA Citation Guide: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/mla_style/mla_formatting_and_style_guide/mla_formatting_and_style_guide.html
MLA Photo Citation Guide: https://warren.libguides.com/c.php?g=1062317&p=7737959#:~:text=MLA%20Citation%20%2D%2D%20Picture%2FPhoto%20Online&text=Artist%27s%20Last%20Name%2C%20First%20Name,Accessed%20Date.
ADA National Network. “What Is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?” https://adata.org/learn-about-ada. Accessed 10 Dec. 2023.
“ADA Amendments Act of 2008 Frequently Asked Questions.” DOL, http://www.dol.gov/agencies/ofccp/faqs/americans-with-disabilities-act-amendments. Accessed 10 Dec. 2023.
Civil Rights Division. “U.S. v. Regents of the University of California.” United States Department of Justice. 22 Nov. 2022, https://www.justice.gov/crt/case/us-v-regents-university-california. Accessed 4 Dec., 2023.
Hon. Stephen V. Wilson United States District Judge. “Payan v. L.A. Cmty. Coll. Dist.” Legal Research Tools from Casetext, 21 May 2019, casetext.com/case/payan-v-la-cmty-coll-dist.
“National Association of the Deaf Announces Landmark Settlement with Harvard to Improve Online Accessibility.” National Association of the Deaf, www.nad.org/2019/11/27/nad-announces-landmark-settlement-with-harvard-to-improve-online-accessibility/. Accessed 4 Dec. 2023.
Olin, Tom. “Wheels of Justice March” Tom Olin Collection, 12 Mar. 1990. https://tomolincollection.com/?p=1. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.
“Payan v. Los Angeles Community College District.” Network for Public Health Law, 7 Oct. 2021, www.networkforphl.org/resources/payan-v-los-angeles-community-college-district/. Accessed 4 Dec., 2023.
Sargus, Edmund A. “Sellers v. Univ. of Rio Grande.” Legal Research Tools from Casetext, 6 Jan. 2012, casetext.com/case/sellers-v-univ-of-rio-grande-2. Accessed 4 Dec., 2023.
“UC Berkeley Responds to DOJ’s Proposed Consent Decree Regarding ADA Violations.” CBS News, CBS San Francisco. 23 Nov. 2022, https://www.cbsnews.com/sanfrancisco/news/uc-berkeley-doj-consent-decree-alleged-ada-violations/. Accessed 4 Dec., 2023.
Weissman, Sara. “Jury Sides with Blind Students against L.A. Community College District.” Inside Higher Ed | Higher Education News, Events and Jobs, www.insidehighered.com/news/quick-takes/2023/06/06/jury-sides-blind-students-against-la-community-college-district. Accessed 4 Dec. 2023.