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The Law - ADA & 504

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) The ADA extended the law to cover private institutions of higher education as well as those receiving federal funding. Colleges and universities have experienced more rigid enforcement of the law with the passage of the ADA due to an increased awareness of people with disabilities about their rights to equal access to programs and services.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 contains more specific information about compliance issues in post-secondary education than the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act 


504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 states that … "No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States … shall, solely by reason of … disability, be denied the benefits of, be excluded from the participation in, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

A person with a disability includes … "any person who (1) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities [including walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, caring for oneself, and performing manual tasks], (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment."

A "qualified person with a disability" is defined as one … "who meets the academic and technical standards requisite to admission or participation in the education program or activity."

Disabilities covered by legislation include (but are not limited to) AIDS, blindness, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, head injuries, hearing disabilities, specific learning disabilities, loss of limb(s), multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, emotional disabilities, speech disabilities, spinal cord injuries, and vision disabilities.

Under the provisions of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 … the College may not discriminate in the recruitment, admission, educational process, or treatment of students. Students who have self-identified, 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.

A college or university may not:  

  • Limit the number of students with disabilities admitted
  • Make pre-admission inquiries as to whether or not an applicant has a disability
  • Use admission tests or criteria that inadequately measure the academic level of students with visual, hearing or other disabilities because provisions were not made for them
  • Exclude a student with a disability from any course of study solely on the basis of his/her disability
  • Counsel students with disabilities towards a more restrictive career than students without disabilities, unless such counsel is based on strict licensing or certification requirements in the profession
  • Measure student achievement using modes that adversely discriminate against students with disabilities
  • Institute prohibitive rules that may adversely affect the performance of students with disabilities
Modifications for Students Include:
  • Architectural barrier removal 
  • Services such as readers for students with blindness, low vision or learning disabilities, qualified interpreters and notetakers for students who are deaf or hard or hearing, and notetakers for students with learning disabilities or orthopedic disabilities
  • Modifications or substitutions 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)
  • Extra time to complete exams
  • Exams individually proctored, read orally, dictated, or typed
  • Alternative formats and methods for students to demonstrate course mastery
  • Computer software programs or other assistive technological devices to assist in test taking
  • Availability of such learning aids as tape players and word processors
Recent Legal Decisions

A college must provide the accommodation. Students are not required to assume the responsibility for securing a necessary accommodation. A college is required to provide reasonable accommodations 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 college may not charge students for necessary accommodations.

Expense of accommodation is not undue hardship. Providing an auxiliary aid or incurring an expense to ensure access would not constitute undue hardship to a college. In determining what constitutes an undue hardship, the OCR views the entire financial resources of a college or university rather than any single department.

Classroom must be accessible. A classroom’s location must be changed to provide accessibility for a student with a mobility disability. A college does not need to make every classroom accessible, but must provide for the participation of students with disabilities when "viewed in its entirety."

Extended time. Extended time is a reasonable accommodation for a student whose documentation specifically requires it. A college is required to ensure that the student is provided additional time to complete tests and/or course work in order to provide an equal opportunity for that student.

Altered form of exam. The form of an exam must be altered if the testing procedure puts a student with a disability at a disadvantage based on the student’s documented disability. There may be an exception when the purpose of the test is to measure a particular skill.

Accommodation must be documented. A college may refuse to grant a student’s request for an accommodation that is not specifically recommended in the student’s documentation.

Handouts in alternate format. If a student with a visual disability is enrolled in a class, all handouts must be provided in an appropriate alternate format and made available to students on the same day they are distributed to students without disabilities.

Diagnostic information confidential. Faculty/staff do not have the right to access diagnostic information regarding a student’s disability. Faculty/staff need only know the accommodations that are necessary to provide an equal opportunity for the student.

Personal liability. An individual faculty member who fails to provide an accommodation to a student with a documented disability may be held personally liable.

Academic freedom. Academic freedom does not permit instructors to decide if they will provide special aids and services for students with documented disabilities in the classroom.

Personal services and aids. A college is not required to provide personal services such as attendant care or personal aids such as wheelchairs or eyeglasses.  

Adapted from:  Thompson, Ann and Bethea, Leslie. (1996). A Desk Reference Guide for Faculty Staff and College Students with Disabilities. Mississippi State University - Project PAACS.


Disability Access Statements 


All programs/events at the College must be accessible. When planning conferences, events, and activities, designate someone to be responsible for handling requests for accommodations. In registration brochures, invitations, or fliers, use the following access statement:  

"For disability-related accommodations, please contact [name, department, address, phone number] at least 2 or more weeks before the [event/workshop] [to allow sufficient time to make necessary arrangements]." 

Publications, such as course syllabi, college bulletins, program brochures, class schedules, newsletters, and instructional publications must be provided in alternative formats (Braille, large print, tape, computer disk) upon request; Disability Support Services, 240-567-5058, can provide assistance with document conversion. In these publications please print the following statement:

"This publication/material is available in alternative formats upon request. Please contact (name, department, address, phone number, email)."

For additional information call or visit the Disability Support Services office at the Rockville Campus in CB122, 240-567-5058 or email DSS at For services on the other campuses, contact the designated DSS counselor at Takoma Park/Silver Spring on 240-567-1475 or at Germantown on 240-567-7767 or 240-567-7770. 

An excellent resource, "Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities," is available from the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, (1-877-433-7827) or (1-800-872-5327) and online at


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