Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA)
As you may know, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) governs special education services in elementary and secondary education. Students with disabilities in elementary, middle, and high schools may have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a Section 504 Plan. Federal funds are provided to schools to implement a student’s IEP. The purpose of an IEP or a 504 Plan is to provide whatever supports are deemed necessary to help a student succeed in the least restrictive environment. Students have varying degrees of involvement in their own special education services because schools (not students) are responsible for identifying and addressing the needs of students with disabilities under IDEA.
At the college level, a new combination of laws applies to students with disabilities: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and portions of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (504). Under these laws, otherwise qualified students with disabilities are protected from discrimination by guarantees of equal access to educational environments and learning situations. The assurance of equal access is very different from the goal of promoting a student’s success.
Who is considered “disabled” under the ADA/Section 504?
Individuals are disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits them in one or more major life activities. Major life activities may include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, concentrating, learning and working. This definition includes people with easily apparent disabilities – persons who have low vision, hearing difficulties, or use a wheelchair – and people with non-apparent disabilities such as psychological disorders, learning or attention disorders, and some chronic health impairments.
Students who seek disability-related accommodations at Washington University must follow an established procedure through the Disability Resources (DR) office. To obtain accommodations, students must submit professional documentation of their disability.
Review of Documentation
If a review of the documentation substantiates the student’s disabling condition as well as a current need for assistance to achieve equal access (i.e., a “level playing field”), the DR staff will work with the student and his/her faculty to implement accommodations that do not fundamentally alter the essential function of a course or program. If students do not meet the university’s guidelines for eligibility, additional documentation may be submitted. Regardless of eligibility status, guidance about academic resources at WashU will be provided that can help to address the student’s needs.
We regularly work with students and/or their families to answer questions and provide guidance as students request and use their accommodations. Unlike high school, however, the college environment follows legal guidelines that require the student to disclose his or her disability status and request accommodations. We welcome calls from and contact with parents but can only respond directly to students after they have advocated for themselves. DR staff members are sensitive to the fact that self-advocacy may be a new role for many students, particularly during the transition to college.