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Legal Module

Disability Related Civil Rights Laws: Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act are civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination against qualified students with disabilities. Both laws deal with accessibility to both physical and instructional environments.  Passed in 1973, Section 504 is the seminal civil rights law related to disability. Although the law has important ramifications for students, faculty, and postsecondary education, the key wording of the law is fairly brief. The regulations state:

A recipient to which this subpart applies shall make such modifications to its academic requirements as are necessary to ensure that such requirements do not discriminate or have the effect of discriminating, on the basis of handicap, against a qualified handicapped applicant or student. Academic requirements that the recipient can demonstrate are essential to the instruction being pursued by such student or to any directly related licensing requirement will not be regarded as discriminatory within the meaning of this section. Modifications may include changes in the length of time permitted for the completion of degree requirements, substitution of specific courses required for the completion of degree requirements, and adaptation of the manner in which specific courses are conducted (34 C.F.R. §104.44 (a)).

What does this mean?

  • First, a “recipient” refers to any postsecondary institution that receives federal financial assistance. This includes, but is not limited to, grant money, money for construction, and student financial aid. As a result, most public and private institutions are covered under the law. Exceptions to this are the U.S. Military Academies and those private institutions that do not accept any form of federal funds.
  • Second, the regulations specify that institutions must consider modifications to academic requirements that might discriminate against a student with a disability. These modifications might include extended time to complete degree requirements, the substitution of particular required courses (e.g., foreign language courses), and providing reasonable accommodations within a particular course.
  • Third, if an academic requirement is considered essential for a plan of study, for professional licensure, or for entry into a particular career, it does not need to be modified. For example, as previously noted, institutions must consider substitution of foreign language requirements for students with disabilities if the nature of the disability precludes the completion of a foreign language requirement even with a reasonable accommodation. However, if a student is in a major in which such study is determined to be an essential requirement (e.g., International Business, some Liberal Arts programs), substitution of a course or courses is not required (Madaus, 2010; McGuire, 2010).
  • Fourth, both Section 504 and the ADA note that students with disabilities must be otherwise “qualified” (34 C.F.R. §104.3(l)(3); 42 U.S.C. §1231(2)). In other words, an applicant with a disability must meet the same admissions criteria as all other applicants. The institution cannot make preadmisison inquiries about a disability, nor can it judge the applicant against a different or higher standard because of a disclosed disability, nor does the institution need to modify its admissions requirement for students because of the disability. Students with disabilities who are enrolled in an institution must meet the same academic requirements (e.g., grade point average, graduation requirements; criteria for admission to a major or program) as other students.
  • Fifth, both Section 504 and the ADA require that postsecondary educational institutions provide auxiliary aids and services to students with disabilities (34 C.F.R. §104.44(d); 28 C.F.R. §36.303). More information about these topics is provided later in this module.


Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of (ADAAA) of 2008, PL 110-325. 42 U.S.C. § 1201 et seq.

Madaus, J. W. (2010). Let’s be reasonable: Accommodations at the college level. In S. F. Shaw, J. W. Madaus, & L. C. Dukes (Eds.). Preparing students with disabilities for college success: A practical guide to transition planning (pp.37-63). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company.

McGuire, J. M. (2010). Considerations for the transition to college. In S. F. Shaw, J. W. Madaus, & L. C. Dukes (Eds.). Preparing students with disabilities for college success: A practical guide to transition planning (pp. 7-35). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as Amended, Section 504, PL 93-112, 29 U.S.C. §794 (1998).

Permission is granted to copy this document for educational purposes; however, please acknowledge your source using the following citation:

UDI Online Project. (2010). Legal Module. Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability, University of Connecticut, Storrs. http://www.udi.uconn.edu/index.php?q=content/legal-module