What's New In Legal
Student Rights Under the ADA and Section 504
Law students and attorneys attending continuing legal education (CLE) coursework
benefit from the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the
Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504). In recent years, the attitude towards
disabled accommodations has improved. In the 16 years since the ADA passed,
students requesting disability accommodations are less likely to find themselves
discriminated against by schools. Educators are acutely aware of ADA and Section
504 accommodations necessary to give those students an equal opportunity to
participate in their courses.
Nevertheless, disagreements over the nature of the disability and the extent
of appropriate and reasonable accommodations do arise. In cases where students
disagree with accommodations provided by schools or CLE vendors, students can
appeal under the ADA as well as under contract rights through school handbooks
for other accommodations.
Section 504 protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination in
programs that receive federal financial assistance. The ADA provides disability
accommodations for all publicly accessible areas. Disabilities may be visible
or not visible, such as a learning- or mental disability. In essence, if the
disability adversely limits one or more major life activities, such as completing
educational requirements in school, the ADA and Section 504 apply. In post-secondary
education, however, the school is required only to provide services for classroom
use and not for personal use or for help outside the class.
Unlike the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education
Act, universities and graduate/post-graduate programs are not obliged
to identify students with disabilities and may not inquire about a student's
disability due to potential admission process discrimination under Section
504. Thus, it is the student's responsibility to inform the school of her or
When a school is informed of the disability, the student may expect reasonable
accommodations that ensure equal classroom participation. Accommodations include
physical access to the classroom, such as wheelchair ramps, and access to coursework
tools that present alternative means of presenting educational content, such
Law students and post-graduate students are frequently permitted non-traditional
means with which to demonstrate mastery of the course content. Examples include
speech-to-text computer aids, digital recording of test answers, oversized
blue books, enlarged print of reading materials and separate testing environments.
However, reasonable accommodations do not permit either lowering academic
standards or additional assistance outside of class. While a hearing-impaired
student may have a portable audio speaker in order to understand the classroom
lecture, he is not entitled to additional lectures given to him outside of
For Students and Attorneys with Disabilities: Rights and Procedures
Students and attorneys with disabilities must first submit to the educator
an accommodations request and a specialist's evaluation recommending accommodations.
The disability must be a physical or mental impairment under the ADA. As education
is considered a major life activity under the ADA and Section 504, the specialist
must assess how the student's impairment(s) substantially limits access to
her studies. Unless the disability arises suddenly, students must request accommodations
prior to the course.
A disability may be a temporary physical change that limits the student's
participation in her or his education, such as heart disease or childbirth.
If a disabling condition is not a physical impairment for employment purposes,
the same condition may entitle a student to Section 504 accommodations. Thus,
law schools may provide accommodations for such conditions as childbirth, where
a law school can waive the course attendance requirements and audiotape the
courses for the student during her maternity leave.
Should the school grant different accommodations than what the student expected,
an appeal may be made to determine whether the institution's accommodations
are adequate to allow the student to participate equally in his class work.
For Schools and Educators: Rights and Responsibilities
If the school receives any form of federal aid, it is obliged to provide
accommodations under Section 504 as well as the ADA. If no federal funds are
received but the program is held in a public place (such as a commercial office
or a private school building), only the ADA applies. If the program is held
on private property, such as a home or small private club, and no federal funds
are involved, the educators are not required to provide accommodations under
the ADA or Section 504.
For example, if a CLE vendor does not receive federal funds to educate practitioners
but holds the course in a public place, that Maryland CLE course is subject
only to the requirements of the ADA and not Section 504.
For law students and attorneys, many educational programs have stepped up
their services to better incorporate students with visible and hidden disabilities.
For instance, as reported by one website, www.deafattorneys.com,
at the top of the list was University of Maryland, which in 2006 educated five
deaf law students. These improvements in education access are due, in no small
measure to the requirements of the ADA and Section 504.
Patrick J. Hoover, Principal of Patrick Hoover Law Offices,
concentrates his practice in Education and Juvenile Law in Rockville Maryland.
Melissa Kenney Ngaruri, law student at Catholic University, Columbus School
of Law, assisted in the research and writing of this article.