For the 4.2 million school-aged children with disabilities in the United States,1 Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act (Rehab Act) is an important piece of legislation because it protects their right to equal opportunity in education.
The Rehab Act prevents discrimination on the basis of disability, and Section 504 in particular applies to any program receiving federal funding – all K-12 schools basically.
Section 504 Regulations
Under Section 504, the school has a duty for making sure that people with disabilities are not excluded from their campuses and programming. But these protections don’t stop when a student finishes high school.
If he or she moves on to higher education, this law still applies. Since universities and colleges generally receive at least some funding from the federal government, they are required to comply with Section 504.
Private post-secondary institutions that don’t get any financial assistance whatsoever from the government are not affected by Section 504 regulations. But they still have to accommodate students with disabilities because they’re still covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Students with Disabilities by the Numbers
You might be surprised to learn that one in nine post-secondary undergraduate students has some kind of disability. And among veterans attending post-secondary schools, one in five has a disability.
In 1981, only three percent of undergraduate students in the U.S. had disabilities, according to a report from The Institute for Higher Education Policy.2
By 2001 the number had already increased to nine percent, or 1.3 million. Today, there are over 2.25 million students with disabilities enrolled in college or university.
Every year, the number of students with disabilities in higher education goes up. Section 504 compliance is more necessary than it’s ever been.
Here’s Who Section 504 Helps
Imagine being unable to read your course’s digital materials, listen to your professor’s video lecture, or participate in class discussions online – all because these are provided in ways that are inaccessible.
As we noted earlier, there are 2.25-million-plus students whose education experience is transformed when schools comply with Section 504.
One of them is Kartik Sawhney, a student at Stanford University who is blind. He uses a screen reader, technology that can read aloud any text on his computer screen. But not all websites are designed to work properly with screen readers.
In a 2015 NPR interview,3 Sawhney described the frustration of encountering inaccessible web pages.
Sawhney, who majors in computer science, is inventing new ways for people to “hear” graphs and charts if they can’t see them.
Rachel Kolb, a 2013 Rhodes Scholar who is deaf, has described in articles and a TED Talk the communication challenges she encountered at university.4 Today, Kolb holds several degrees and is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Emory University.
Adam Newman is nearing completion of his own Ph.D. after devoting years of study to disability, race and gender, and winning numerous awards.
As an undergraduate at Vassar College, however, he wrote that students with disabilities on campus felt “at worst completely ignored, and begrudgingly tolerated at best.”5
Newman co-founded the school’s first student organization to help students with disabilities and allies connect, and to overcome perceived stigma and isolation.
There are millions more like Sawhney, Kolb and Newman. Their disabilities may vary, but they do have at least one thing in common. These young women and men all have a right to equal opportunity in education. And that right is protected by Section 504.
Section 504 Reasonable Accommodation
Today’s students are digital natives, and accustomed to using technology in all aspects of their lives.
Technology and the web play a much bigger role in the student experience today than it ever has. As a result, higher education institutions have needed to adapt their approach in and out of the classroom.
However, due to a lack of proper accessibility standards, students with disabilities are all but left out.
There are many different ways to make digital platforms accessible and inclusive. Some examples include:
- a disability-friendly website
- free assistive technology so students can use their laptops and mobile devices
- properly formatted electronic course materials
- accessible online class forums and e-learning platforms
- captioned videos
Surveys by organizations like the Job Accommodation Network6 have proven that the majority of disability-related accommodations are free or inexpensive. Often, it just means designing a digital presence with accessibility in mind, right from the start.
Even though technology can enable students with disabilities to reach their full potential, it can isolate them when it’s not done properly. And that doesn’t make for a very pleasant student experience.
504 Compliance Helps Schools Too
Accessibility in education does not only help students who have disabilities. It also creates an accessible workplace.
How would Professor Stephen Hawking have taught his physics classes at the University of Cambridge if the lecture hall couldn’t accommodate his power wheelchair?
Administrators and professors with disabilities benefit just as much from Section 504 regulations! In the end, educational institutions end up with a richer pool of talented employees to choose from.
When schools comply with Section 504 and create an accessible environment for everyone, enrolment increases as well. Students with disabilities, because they have the right support, are more likely to succeed. These graduates may then go on to generate amazing changes in the world. All of this was possible because they had a positive start.
An Innovative Solution
eSSENTIAL Accessibility has developed a full-stack accessibility solution to help higher education institutions comply with Section 504. This includes integrating web accessibility compliance services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for students with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL Accessibility’s innovative solution.
- A Publication of the Disability Statistics & Demographics Rehabilitation Research & Training Center: 2014 Disability Statistics Annual Report. University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability / UCED.
- Thomas R. Wolanin and Patricia E. Steele. Higher Education Opportunities for Students with Disabilities: a Primer for Policymakers. The Institute for Higher Education Policy, June 2004.
- Steve Henn. As New Tools Bust Down Barriers For The Blind, Schools Struggle To Keep Up. NPR transcript of All Things Considered. November 5, 2015.
- Rachel Kolb. Navigating deafness in a hearing world. TEDxStanford, June 20, 2013.
- Adam Newman. Disabled students need social and non-medical spaces.
Miscellany News, Volume CXLIII, Number 17, 25 March 2010.
- Beth Loy. Accommodation and Compliance Series Workplace Accommodations: Low Cost, High Impact. Job Accommodation Network, Original 2005, Updated 2007, Updated 2009, Updated 2010, Updated 2011, Updated 2012, Updated 2013, Updated 2014, Updated 2015, Updated 2016.