February 3, 2004 Features

Project Success: Assuring College Students With Disabilities a Quality Higher Education

A student with a hearing impairment is advised that she cannot be a speech-language pathologist. Another student with a hearing impairment is denied admission to a nursing program because of concerns about his ability to communicate with the surgeons in the operating room. A student has frequent seizures because she cannot afford her medication. Another has severe arthritis and has difficulty taking notes and doing an audiological assessment. Another is drowsy as a side effect from medication for depression and is in recovery for drug addiction. A student is severely dysfluent in most speaking situations. Although he has been in treatment for most of his life, he is unable to consistently control his fluency when speaking.

Some History

College faculty throughout the United States are facing situations such as these in increasing numbers. In 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act, a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of mental or physical ability (29 UDC Section 794). Section 504 of the law states: "No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the U.S. shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance…" (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, 29 USC Section 794).

Shortly after the Rehabilitation Act was passed, President Ford signed the Education for the Handicapped Act in 1975, later amended to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA; PL 101-476.) Under this act students with disabilities were guaranteed a free appropriate public educational program. The number of students with disabilities completing elementary and secondary education increased, and approximately 21% of those completing secondary school sought a college education. Despite the requirements of the Rehabilitation Act and IDEA, barriers to education and employment continued to pose difficulties for adults with disabilities who were transitioning out of elementary and secondary school.

In 1990 President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA; PL 101-336). The law states that "no otherwise qualified individual with a disability shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity." The law reinforces and extends the precedent established by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Under Title II of the ADA the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has established the basic requirement that all institutions of higher education must assure that all programs, services, and facilities be accessible to or usable by persons with disabilities. Accessibility may be achieved by a variety of means. The law does not require a fundamental alteration in the program or services; it does not require an alteration that would require an undue financial or administrative burden on the institution.

Since 1990 there has been a significant increase in the number of students with disabilities seeking higher education. The number of students with disabilities entering and completing post-secondary education tripled from 1978 to 1998. Approximately 50% of students with disabilities enroll in two-year programs for associate degrees and 50% of the associate degree holders with disabilities move on to four-year schools. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), in 1999-2000 9.3% of full-time college undergraduates reported disabilities, with the largest groups being those with orthopedic impairments, learning disabilities, health-related impairments, and emotional or psychological impairments. The largest increase has been with students with invisible disabilities such as learning disabilities and emotional impairment.

According to the NCES, 7.4% of students in graduate and first-professional degree programs consider themselves to have a disability. Of those reporting a disability, 25.1% have an orthopedic or mobility impairment, 14.3% have mental illness or depression, and as many as 29% have a learning disability.

The ADA and Higher Education

School-based SLPs and audiologists are familiar with the requirements of IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, since their impact has been felt in the schools for more than 25 years. College faculty are often unaware of the requirements of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act and their implications for academic programs, including those in speech-language pathology and audiology.


IDEA assures a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment for children ages 0-21. The law emphasizes special education and related services that meet the student's unique needs as defined by an individualized education program (IEP). IDEA defines disabilities by discrete categories of disability types such as speech-language impairment, emotional impairment, hearing impairment, visual impairment, serious emotional disturbance, autism, brain injury, and other health impairments or specific learning disabilities possessed by individuals who by reason of these impairments need special education and related services.

The ADA defines a person with a disability by that individual's ability to function. According to the ADA, a person with a disability is one who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working; has a record of such an impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment. The ADA does not define special education or related services, rather it requires that the student not be subjected to discrimination solely because of mental, physical, or emotional impairment. Because of these differences, a person who was eligible for special education under IDEA may not be eligible for accommodations as a person with a disability under the ADA.

Help for Faculty

The U.S. Department of Education (ED), recognizing that faculty need assistance in understanding the needs of students with disabilities, awarded grants in 1999 to 21 colleges and universities to develop model demonstration programs to ensure that students with disabilities receive a quality education. Although each was structured differently, the model demonstration projects were conceptually similar:

  • Universal Design-Each project in some way incorporated the principles of universal design, an architectural concept originated in the 1970s to ensure barrier-free physical environments that are usable by all people without the need for adaptation for the needs of a few. These accessible environmental changes, such as curb cuts and ramps, have become a common part of the American landscape. Universal design in instruction uses the principle that what improves accessibility for students with a disability improves accessibility for students without disabilities as well. Universal design says that to accommodate the needs of both visual and auditory learners, the instructor would use visual aids while lecturing, would use no font size smaller than 12 point to accommodate the needs of persons with visual impairments, would supplement text with auditory aids such as video or DVD; and would use alternate ways for students to demonstrate their understanding of course content.
  • Administrative Support-Each of the funded projects recognized the importance of involving the administration to assure that the college policies and practices are not discriminatory and that the faculty receives the proper training to assure that students with disabilities receive the same quality education provided to students without disabilities.
  • Faculty Participation-The 21 programs focus on different aspects of quality higher education. For example, the program at Oregon State focused on providing faculty training to persons in allied health careers since there is a growing number of persons with disabilities in first-professional degree programs. The program at California State University at Northridge focused on special training for faculty dealing with students with hearing impairment. (Visit www.ed.gov/searchResults.jhtml or www.ed.gov/about/reports/annual/2002report for information on the projects.)

Project Success

With the support of a $400,000 grant from the USDE, Project Success at Buffalo State College (SUNY) provided a demonstration program to ensure that students with disabilities would receive a quality higher education. Co-directors Marianne Savino and Dolores E. Battle collaborated with 13 colleges and universities in western New York. In a partnership between the Disability Services Office, the Exceptional Education Department, and the Office of the President, the project conducted training for more than 1,000 administrators, faculty, and professional staff over four years. The project had several points of focus:

  • Universal Design-Project Success emphasized the importance of universal design principles for improving access for students with disabilities to the educational programs and services of the college. Faculty and professional staff received special training in providing accessible Web Pages and educational supports that would benefit all students. All faculty training in Web page design and using educational technology for distance education included training in universal design to improve access for all students.
  • Training for Administrators-The purpose of the project was to make systemic changes in the policy and procedures for services for students with disabilities to increase the quality of education so that they would complete the degree and become successfully employed. Administrators and faculty indicated that they needed information about their responsibility under the law. Nearly 200 administrators-including vice presidents, deans, department chairs, and directors from Buffalo State College and 11 participating colleges-attended two disability institutes. Using case studies, administrators explored the ADA requirement for admissions, residence halls, financial aid, extracurricular activities, and classroom and laboratory access. In addition, administrators had hands-on experience with adaptive technology such as Dragon Dictate, Jaws, and computer-based text enlargers. They also received instruction in making the college Web pages accessible to those with visual impairments.
  • Training for Faculty and Staff-Project Success training for faculty and staff focused on courses that are frequently most difficult for students with learning disabilities, including languages other than English, mathematics, and reading and writing skills. Full-day workshops and multiple-day institutes were held with faculty teaching in these areas as well as in other areas in the general education curriculum. A case-study approach was used to relate the issues to the day-to-day issues in each of the respective administrative units. In a lunchtime series called First Fridays Dialogs for Disabilities, faculty engaged in informal discussions about the various types of disabilities and instructional techniques, and conversed with students with disabilities. Faculty used the assistive devices available to students and learned about the special challenges that students with disabilities face as they earn a college degree.
  • Special Issues in Clinical Practicum and Career Advisement-Participants received special training in understanding the needs of students with disabilities in clinical practicum and field placements and in career advisement. The needs of students in the classroom were shown to be very different from those of the same student in a real-life situation. Faculty and staff were guided in identifying standards for admission to programs as well as essential functions for course and degree completion. For example, a student may be allowed extra time to take an examination in the academic setting; however, the student may not be allowed to take additional time to administer a test in a clinical setting. A student who was allowed to take examinations in a quiet location could not be assured of such accommodation in a real-life work setting. A student who was able to use a spell-checker for written work in the academic setting may not be able to use a spell-checker on written work prepared for clients during the clinical session or for writing chart notes. Concepts such as physical access to off-campus practicum, career advisement based on the students' ability rather than disability, and other concepts were discussed and presented at institutes throughout the four-year grant period.

At the conclusion of the program, faculty, staff, and administrators remarked that the project was successful because of increased awareness of the needs of students with disabilities. By paying attention to the needs of these students, they became better faculty for all students.

Dolores E. Battle, is professor at Buffalo State College of the State University of New York. Contact her by e-mail at BATTLEDE@BuffaloState.edu.

cite as: Battle, D. E. (2004, February 03). Project Success: Assuring College Students With Disabilities a Quality Higher Education. The ASHA Leader.

How Do Disabilities Affect College Students in Communication Sciences and Disorders?

Joyce: Case Study

Joyce, a graduate student with a GPA of 3.6, uses an electric wheeled mobility device. In an advisement session, her academic advisor asked Joyce if she had ever considered the possibility of a master's degree in special education. The advisor explained, "While you are here at the university, Joyce, I suppose we can make whatever adaptations are necessary to make the courses and clinics available to you on campus. However, none of the sites we use in off-campus school-based practicum are wheelchair accessible, and only a few have accessible lavatories for the staff. It may be difficult for you to move between the two or more schools as expected of an itinerant speech-language pathologist in the schools. Frankly, I think you will find the same problem when you are looking for a job in speech-language pathology in another setting. It might be difficult for you to work with small children. You would probably find it easier to work in a classroom with older children in special education such as high school children with learning disabilities or orthopedic impairments. Besides, having gotten this far yourself, I would think you would enjoy an opportunity to help other people like yourself."

Has the professor violated the provisions of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act?

Absolutely. The institution is responsible for providing Joyce the same choices for a practicum afforded to students without disabilities. The program must provide some practicum sites that are able to meet the accessibility needs of the students. In addition, the advisor provided guidance to Joyce based on her disability, not on her ability to perform the function of the positions.

Craig: Case Study

Craig, an undergraduate student with a learning disability, is majoring in speech-language pathology. He has been in the program for the past seven years and has been on and off academic probation several times during his time at the university. Although he is very interested in speech and hearing science, he has had a good deal of difficulty making his way through the curriculum. He has a GPA of 1.67 in his major after 72 semester hours of classes. His overall GPA is 2.3, largely because of the success he has had in courses in history and social studies, which is his minor. In a meeting with his advisor, the professor asked him if he had considered changing his major to history. The professor explained by saying, " I know you are interested in speech and language science, but the academic coursework required seems to be difficult for you. The department has a rule that in order to receive a degree in the program you must have a GPA of at least 2.0. You would need to take five more courses in speech and hearing science and get an A in each of them in order to reach the 2.0 necessary for graduation. Also, in the long run, you will need a GPA of at least 3.0 to move on to graduate school. On the other hand, you have done well in your history courses. You will only need to take five more courses and get a C in them in order to receive a degree in history."

Has Professor Jones violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA by giving this advice?

No. He gave his advice based on the student's past performance rather than based solely on his disability. The student has shown that he does poorly in courses in the basic sciences and does well in courses in the social sciences. The advice given to him was appropriate.

Lori: Case Study

Lori, a graduate student in communication sciences and disorders, has an undergraduate GPA of 3.6. She does well in her academic classes and in her clinic sessions. During discussions with her clinical supervisor, Lori can verbalize her understanding of the clients and the clinical strategies that are appropriate for them. However, Lori is late with her clinical reports. She makes grammatical and spelling errors in daily charting and in written reports. During a supervisory conference, Lori told the supervisor that she has a learning disability and requested accommodations to allow her to meet the requirements of the program. She said that in her undergraduate program she received extended time on her tests, including the GRE, and was able to use a note-taker in classes and use a computer with a spell-checker for her written assignments. Since she is required to write clinical notes daily in her practicum, she has not been able to use the necessary accommodations. She asked if she could have additional time to prepare her chart notes and her reports. Her supervisor appreciated her candor, but told her that she would not be able to complete the practicum because of her poor writing ability and the lateness of her reports. She was asked to withdraw from the program or be asked to leave by the faculty committee.

Did Lori's supervisor violate the requirements of the ADA?

Yes. The supervisor should have investigated whether there was a reasonable way for Lori to meet the requirements of the program. Lori could have been allowed to dictate her reports for the daily reports and later have them transcribed using a software package such as Dragon Dictate. Since Lori had a documented disability, her needs should have been discussed prior to the assignment in the clinic so that the reasonable adaptations could have been made when she began the practicum.

Disabilities by Percentage

Percent of First-Year College Students Reporting Disabilities

Disability 1988 1998
Speech 0.3 0.5
Orthopedic 1.0 0.8
Learning Disability 1.2 3.5
Health Related 1.2 1.7
Visually Impaired 1.9 1.1
Hearing Impaired 0.8 0.9
Other (emotionally impaired) 1.4 1.9
Total 7.0 9.4

Source: HEATH Resource Center. (1999). American Council of Education. Based on unpublished data from the cooperative Institutional Research Program, UCLA selected years, College Freshmen with Disabilities: A Biennial Statistical Profile. American Council of Education, Washington DC (1999, p. 3).

Types of Disabilities Reported by Undergraduates Who Reported Having A Disability, 1995-1996

Learning Disability 29%
Orthopedic 23%
Hearing impairment 16%
Visual impairment 16%
Health related 21%
Speech impaired 3%

Source: U. S. Department of Education. National Center for Educational Statistics. (1999). Students with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education: A profile of preparation, participation and outcomes. NCES-1999-187. Washington, DC.

Types of Disabilities Among Full-Time College Freshmen With Disabilities by Percentage

  1988   1998 
Partially sighted/blind    31.7  13.3 
Health   5.7  19.3 
LD    15.3  41.0 
Orthopedic    13.8  9.1 
Hearing*    11.6  11.6 
Speech    3.8  5.3 
Other**    18.5  21.8 

Source: HEATH Resource Center, American Council on Education. Based on unpublished data from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, UCLA.

Educating College Students With Disabilities: Points to Consider

  1. All academic programs should have a clear statement of admission policies that do not discriminate on the basis of a stated disability. For example, requiring a certain level of hearing or standard for oral communication may be discriminatory. In addition, all admissions materials (including forms, course catalogs, Web pages, and brochures) should be available in formats (such as large print or Braille upon request) that are accessible to students with disabilities.
  2. Programs should have a statement on essential requirements or standards for degree completion and for each course in the program. The requirements should not discriminate solely on the basis of a disability. For example, a program cannot require effective oral communication because this would discriminate against those who are effective communicators by other means. It can require effective communication.
  3. The program does not have to reduce or lower its department or program standards to accommodate the needs of a person with a disability. However, the standards must be able to be justified as essential to the purpose of the program.
  4. The program cannot require that a student declare himself or herself as a student with a disability. Nor does the program have the right to know the nature of the disability. The faculty need only be assured that the appropriate documentation to support eligibility as a student with a disability has been approved by the administration and that the accommodations suggested do not result in a fundamental alteration in the program.
  5. The IEP from secondary school may not be appropriate in higher education. Accommodations that were provided in secondary school may be viewed as substantially altering aspects of the postsecondary curriculum, and are therefore not reasonable. As part of secondary school transition planning under IDEA, a psychological examination in the senior or junior year should specify the functional limitations of the student in major life activities as well as recommendations for accommodation in postsecondary school.
  6. Evaluation of speech-language or hearing impairment for persons seeking accommodations under the ADA should specify the functional limitations and the amount of the limitations to satisfy the requirement for eligibility stipulating that the person must have a disability that substantially limits one of more of the major life activities.
  7. Some if not all practicum sites should be accessible to persons with disabilities. The variety of sites should provide the same options and types of choices for students with disabilities as for those without disabilities.
  8. Students taking Web-based or distance education classes need to know the process for obtaining accommodations. The program provided over the Internet, including all assigned materials, must be accessible to students with disabilities.
  9. The principles of universal design in instruction help accommodate the needs of students with disabilities while improving instruction for all.
  10. Web pages must be accessible to students with disabilities. Visit www.w3.org/WAI or www.cast.org/bobby for complete guidelines and checklist.

Basic Principles of the ADA

  1. The ADA is an extension of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Since the ADA is essentially an anti-discrimination act, the Office of Civil Rights investigates complaints.
  2. To be protected by the ADA the individual must have a disability relative to the general population. In some cases the courts have ruled that a person can be considered to have a disability because that individual is substantially limited in the ability to perform a major life function in relation to those of similar education and training. In Bartlett v. New York State Board of Law Examiners (2F Supp.2d 388 S.D. N.Y.1997), Marilyn Bartlett, a 49-year-old woman with a cognitive disorder that impairs her ability to read, earned a PhD in educational administration from New York University, a law degree from Vermont Law School, and had met all of the prerequisites to sit for the New York Bar Examination. Because of her substantial learning disability she sought accommodation while taking the bar exam. The courts initially ruled that she did not have a disability because she was able to function better than the average person. After several years of litigation it was decided that she did have a disability because she required considerably more time to process information than persons with the same education and training, that is, other students who have completed the necessary training to take the bar examination. Her success in other venues was attributed to her own ability to mitigate her disability by using more time to complete assignments and prior examinations.
  3. The process of qualifying an individual as disabled under the ADA requires current, detailed, and professional documentation. Institutions are required to provide accommodations only to those individuals who meet the essential functions of the educational program. Accommodations need only address the interactions between functional impairments and task demands.

Not all students who were eligible for special education services in elementary and secondary school are eligible for consideration for services in post-secondary education. There are several differences between IDEA and the ADA.

  • Under IDEA students are eligible for services if they meet one of more of the categories defining a disability.

    Under the ADA the qualification for identification as a person with a disability is based in "substantial impairment in a major life activity, such as but not limited to walking, speaking, learning."
  • Under IDEA the local educational agency teachers and school specialists are responsible for proactively identifying the children who have disabilities.

    Under the ADA students are responsible for notifying the appropriate persons at the university that they have a disability and are in need of academic adjustments and accommodations.
  • Under IDEA the school district is responsible for all testing necessary to determine whether the student has a disability.

    Under the ADA students are responsible for providing the documentation necessary to support their functional limitation and need for accommodation. Because the ADA requires a definition of the functional limitations of the student for a particular task or educational program, the IEP that was prepared in secondary school is usually not acceptable for this purpose. The documentation must be relatively recent, particularly for those impairments that could change over time, such as emotional impairment. Most programs require documentation to be within three years of entering the institution. Schools can assist students who are preparing for entry into college by providing a psychological examination and report that meets the requirements of the ADA as a part of the transition planning as the student prepares to leave high school. Many college students do not have medical insurance to support the necessary testing. They may be living out of the area covered by their HMO and therefore not have access to coverage for the necessary testing.
  • Under IDEA schools are required to provide the necessary special education and related services to enable the child to learn.

    Under the ADA the institution is responsible only for providing access to the programs and services provided for students without disabilities. They are not required to provide reduced class size, transportation, remedial services, or therapeutic services. For example, the institution is required to provide physical access to buildings. They are not required to provide physical therapy or a personal aide to provide assistance to the student. If such services are required, the student is responsible for providing them.
  • Under IDEA schools may alter the nature of the education program to meet the needs of the student and the individual potential of the student.

    Under the ADA the institution is not required to reduce or alter its standards to accommodate the needs of the student. For example, a student at Tufts University Medical School (Wynne v. Tufts University School of Medicine, 932 F2nd 791 1st cir 1992) wanted an accommodation because of his learning disability. He reported that he had difficulty taking multiple-choice examinations. He requested that he be allowed to take his qualifying examinations in essay form. The school denied the requested accommodation stating that the rapid decision-making to discrete choices or alternatives was an important and essential function of being a physician. Altering the test would be changing the essential function of the examination. The courts ruled for the institution. A similar case involved a group of students with learning disability at Boston University (Guckenberger v. Boston University 974 F Supp.106, 154-55 D Mass 1997). They requested that they not be required to take a foreign language that was required for all students in the bachelor's program. Boston University argued that the ability to use and understand a language other than English was an essential component of the university's liberal arts program. The students were required to complete the language requirement.
  • Under IDEA an IEP is developed for each student to define the special education and related services that will be provided to the child.

    Under the ADA there are no IEPs. The student is responsible for meeting the essential standards of the educational program with or without reasonable accommodations. The institution is not required to provide special education or academic tutoring. The institution is required to make all programs and services accessible to the student, including residence halls and recreational facilities. However, they are not required to change or lower the standards for a program to accommodate the functional ability of the students. For example, if a student has a medical condition that limits the number of hours a day the student can be in a practicum setting, the program may extend the period of time that is usually used to complete the practicum. However, they are not required to reduce the number of practicum hours that student would need to complete in the setting, since to do so would lower the requirements for the program.

Resources and References

ADA Compliance Guide. Thompson Publishing Group, 1725 K St. NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20006.

Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, 42. U. S. C. §12102 et seq (1998).

Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). P.O. Box 540666, Waltham, MA 02454; www.ahead.org. A membership organization that addresses the needs and concerns of service providers for upgrading the quality of services available to persons with disabilities in higher education.

Disability Compliance for Higher Education: Successful Strategies for Accommodating Students and Staff With Disabilities. LRP Publications, 747 Dresher Road, P.O. Box 980, Horsham, PA 19044-0980. Monthly newsletter.

Gordon, M., & Keiser, S. (Eds.) (1998). Accommodations in Higher Education under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Dewitt, NY: GSI Publications.

HEATH Resource Center, 2134 G St., NW, Washington, DC 20052. www.heath.gwu.edu. A national clearinghouse of information concerning the post-secondary education of students with disabilities.

Heath Resource Center. (1999). Profile of 1998 college freshmen with disabilities. Washington, DC: American Council of Education.

Individuals With Disabilities Act. (1990). 20 U. S. C. § 1400 et seq.

U.S. Department of Education Model Demonstration Projects to Ensure That Students With Disabilities Receive a Quality Higher Education.


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