Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act protects the rights of students with disabilities to have the same educational opportunities as everyone else. Under Section 504, schools and the programs and services they offer must be fully accessible to students who have disabilities.
The Rehab Act applies to any school that is at least partially funded by the federal government. Since this includes most colleges and universities in the country, it means that Section 504 protection remains in place even as students with disabilities make the transition from elementary school to high school to exciting new post-secondary opportunities.
If a private school receives no government funding at all, it’s not obligated to comply with Section 504. (School administrators may take steps to ensure compliance anyway, as part of a commitment to diversity.)
Regardless of whether or not a school is a covered entity under Section 504, no institution is above the law when it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Title II of the ADA bans disability-related discrimination by any public entity, even if it doesn’t receive financial assistance from the government. Thus all schools, whether privately or publicly funded, must ensure equal access to students with disabilities.
Responsibilities under Section 504
Incoming students with disabilities, of course, must meet a school’s academic or prerequisite admission requirements just like other students. But post-secondary schools, for their part, must ensure that they respond to the needs of students with disabilities to the same degree as other students. Universities and colleges are obligated to provide the auxiliary aids or services that are required to meet these needs, as long as this wouldn’t impose an undue burden.
Examples of these aids or services might include changes to the physical environment, such as installing automatic door openers, or modification of educational materials, ensuring they’re in alternate formats that are more accessible. Schools may also provide assistive technology to enable students to access electronic information that is necessary for their educational program.
More importantly, Section 504 also bans any kind of coercion or intimidation that might interfere with these students’ rights to an equal education. Thus it is illegal to retaliate against a student who requests an accommodation or files a Section 504 complaint. There must be no docking of the student’s grades, for example, or expulsion from the program.
However, there is much to be gained by becoming a positive supporter of your students’ right to equal services. As the participation rate of students with disabilities increases in higher education – from three percent in 19811 to 11 percent today2 – it becomes more compelling than ever to provide accommodations. An institution that is successful in its efforts at full inclusion is educating tomorrow’s leaders and achievers – specifically, 2.25 million of them. 2,3
Avoid Section 504 Complaints
When an institution of higher education does strive to meet its Section 504 obligations, this can also help prevent the expense and negative publicity of a lengthy grievance and/or complaints process.
Section 504 is enforced by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). 4 The OCR’s role is to ensure that federally funded schools comply with a full range of federal civil rights laws. Thus in addition to overseeing compliance with the Rehabilitation Act, the OCR monitors cases of alleged discrimination based on age, ethnicity and gender identity, among others.
However, in just the past four years, the OCR has investigated numerous Section 504 complaints against a range of universities and colleges across the country. These institutions of higher learning were accused of refusing to accommodate a disability or having barriers in place that interfered with a student’s right to an equal education. Some examples include:
- University of Montana, which allegedly discriminated against students with disabilities by using inaccessible technologies to teach class. These included online discussion boards, assignments and library materials that could not be accessed by all students. The university also failed to ensure that its website-based course registration was free of barriers.
- Mt. Hood Community College in Oregon, after a student using a screen reader was unable to register for an online summer class. The college agreed to make all of its online services accessible, ensuring that both students and applicants with disabilities can use these services as easily and independently as people without disabilities.
- Phoenix University, which began using a new online learning platform that was not compatible with assistive technology. Students with disabilities were not able to fully participate. In the complaints resolution process, the university was required to audit and remove barriers from any online content that it makes available to students or the public.
- Garden City Community College in Kansas agreed to improve the accessibility of its website after the OCR found that students with vision disabilities were not able to use it as easily and independently as other students.
- Youngstown State University in Ohio was found in violation of Section 504 by failing to ensure that its website was accessible to people with disabilities. In particular, there were multiple online barriers for those who tried to use the website with assistive technology.
To learn more about an institution’s obligations to its students, faculty and website visitors, download our whitepaper “How Higher Education is Failing Students with Disabilities”.
A More Efficient Solution to Accommodation
In its resolution letter to Mt. Hood Community College, the OCR wrote: “Section 504 and Title II [of the ADA] generally require recipients and public entities to provide equal access to programs, activities, and services to qualified individuals with disabilities…One way to help meet these requirements is to ensure that websites have accessible features for individuals with disabilities.”
In fact, removing online barriers is not absolutely required in order to meet Section 504 obligations. Legally, an institution of higher learning can opt to provide an alternative way for people with disabilities to access its services. However, in order to be fair, this “alternative” must be considered equivalent to the standard ways that other students interact with the programs and services. That means it needs to have all the ease and benefits of a website – available 24/7, able to be used conveniently from home or a mobile device, and so on.
Thus improving the accessibility of existing digital properties is arguably much more easily and readily done than finding or developing alternative ways for people with disabilities to interact with your institution. That’s especially true given there are consulting firms that specialize in this kind of remediation.
Ensuring that all your digital assets are equally accessible to everyone, instead of setting up a separate system while allowing online barriers to remain in place, also sends a strong message to the community. It demonstrates to students and prospective students with disabilities that they are fully included, not seen as “other” and directed to a separate entrance. When you open your front door to all students, it makes everyone feel welcome at your institution.
See how we helped Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) in El Paso improve web accessibility so their students with disabilities have equal access to all digital properties. Read the case study here.
An Innovative Solution
eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.
- Higher Education Opportunities for Students with Disabilities The Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2004.
- Students with Disabilities: Fast FactsNational Center for Education Statistics, 2016.
- Students with Disabilities: Back to school statistics National Center for Education Statistics, 2016.
- Office for Civil Rights U.S. Department of Education, 2017.