Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Q&A on Disability Discrimination in Education Under Federal Law

Understanding the rights of students with disabilities is essential. This is true for students, parents, and school administrators. From special education to reasonable accommodations, it's crucial to know how the law works. This can help ensure every student has a fair and equal learning opportunity.

Three major federal laws affect students with disabilities. These laws are:

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act
  • Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The following article covers frequently asked questions about these laws.

What is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a U.S. federal law. This law ensures students with disabilities get a free appropriate public education (FAPE). FAPE makes sure students receive an education tailored to their individual needs. Students must receive FAPE in the least restrictive environment (LRE) possible.

IDEA mandates public schools serve the educational needs of eligible students with disabilities. This includes providing them with special education and related services. IDEA is both a special education law and an anti-discrimination law.

Under IDEA, students with disabilities receive an individualized education program (IEP). This is a plan tailored to the needs of each student. Read more about IEPs in the sections below. Learn more about IDEA at FindLaw's IDEA FAQ page.

What is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act?

Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This act was one of the first U.S. federal laws designed to protect the rights of people with disabilities. It focuses on preventing discrimination against individuals with disabilities. This discrimination is prohibited in any program or activity receiving federal financial help.

If an educational institution receives federal money, it cannot discriminate. It cannot discriminate against individuals with disabilities. They must also provide reasonable accommodations. These accommodations give these individuals equal access to educational opportunities.

What is Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Title II is part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The ADA is a broad law addressing the rights of individuals with disabilities. Title II is specifically focused on public entities. It mandates that all public entities must not discriminate against individuals with disabilities. This is regardless of whether they receive federal funds. This ensures that public schools, colleges, and universities uphold these standards. This law helps ensure equal access for all students to accommodations for disabilities.

Do these laws cover all school districts, colleges, and universities?

Yes, these laws cover most. Schools receiving federal financial help must adhere to Section 504. Public colleges and universities generally receive federal financial help. Most private colleges and universities also receive such help. Some private colleges do not receive federal help, and Section 504 does not apply to them.

Title II applies only to public institutions. Title II covers all public schools, colleges, and universities. This is true whether they receive federal funds or not. IDEA primarily affects public elementary and secondary schools. Colleges and universities are not governed by IDEA.

Do these laws only protect students?

No. These laws focus on the rights of students. But they also protect teachers, school staff, parents, and visitors of educational institutions. This ensures that individuals with disabilities do not face disability discrimination.

Do these laws only cover education programs?

No. These laws do not only cover education programs. Their primary focus is on ensuring equal access to students. But, their reach extends beyond the classroom. For instance, they also cover extracurricular activities. This can include sports, school-sponsored events, and other school-related functions.

They also provide procedural safeguards to certain services. For example, transportation and counseling may have these access guidelines. Physical education and health services may also have safeguards to protect disabled students.

Do all buildings have to be physically accessible for people with disabilities?

No, not necessarily. Ensuring accessibility for all is a guiding principle. But it doesn't mean every existing building must be immediately altered for complete accessibility. Newly constructed buildings should meet the accessibility standards. If a building undergoes significant renovations, it must also meet accessibility standards. This ensures they are usable by everyone, regardless of their physical disabilities.

Structures should follow accessibility standards in certain situations. Particularly, structures should be made accessible when it is "readily available" to do so. This means that modifications are easy to install without excessive difficulty or expense. They might need to provide ramps, elevators, or other reasonable accommodations to ensure equal access.

What types of adjustments do colleges need to make for students with disabilities?

Colleges and universities must provide students with appropriate academic adjustments. This includes auxiliary aids and services necessary to afford an equal opportunity to participate in the school's program. Examples of auxiliary aids are taped texts, notetakers, and interpreters. Others include readers and specialized computer equipment.

Colleges and universities are not required to supply students with attendants. They do not have to supply prescribed devices like hearing aids or wheelchairs. They also do not have to provide readers or other devices of a personal nature. But, colleges and universities must offer reasonable accommodations.

Reasonable accommodations include extended test-taking time and note-taking services. They could also include other accessible learning materials. Each student's needs are based on their specific impairment.

What types of services do elementary and middle schools need to offer students with disabilities?

School districts must provide a free, appropriate public education to students with disabilities. This is based on their individualized educational needs. The services may include individual education and related aids and services. This could include physical therapy or modifications to the regular education program. This includes adjustments in test-taking procedures and adjustments to rules on absences.

These students are entitled to an individualized education program (IEP). This plan ensures they receive special education services tailored to their individual needs. This includes special learning aids and related services to help the child succeed.

What is an individualized education program (IEP)?

An individualized education program (IEP) is a crucial tool. These plans are designed to ensure students with disabilities receive support tailored to their individual needs. This support aims to help them thrive in an educational environment. At its core, an IEP is a personalized plan that outlines specific educational goals. It also details the services required to help a student achieve those objectives.

student's eligibility for an IEP must be determined through assessments. These assessments help others understand the child's unique needs. This can range from conditions like autism to other specific learning disabilities. These evaluations help pinpoint where support is most needed.

Creating an IEP requires collaboration. An IEP team comprises various individuals. These people include various professionals, teachers, and school psychologists. The team also includes the child's parents and the student (especially if they're in high school). This group works together. They identify and agree on the best strategies and supports for the student.

Can an IEP be discriminatory?

Yes. There are instances where the development or implementation of an IEP can be discriminatory. An IEP, by design, should cater to individual needs. If an IEP doesn't address a student's specific needs or if it limits their educational opportunities, it can be viewed as discriminatory. For example, suppose a student is placed in a more restrictive environment. There is no adequate justification for this change from the least restrictive environment. This is an example of when an IEP can be discriminatory.

Another example is if the school fails to provide necessary accommodations. This can lead to the student's deprivation of equal education opportunities. This is also considered discriminatory to the student.

Do federal laws prohibit harassment of students or others because of a disability?

Yes, absolutely. Federal laws prohibit harassment of students or others based on a disability. Harassment based on disability is a form of discrimination. Harassment is a civil rights law violation under various federal statutes. For instance, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the ADA are examples. These laws outlaw discrimination against students with disabilities.

This includes harassment. Harassment can negatively impact a student's ability to learn. It can also affect the student's willingness to participate in school activities. Schools must address such harassment promptly and effectively. If they fail to do so, they can be accountable for the consequences. They can be responsible for not upholding the rights of students with disabilities.

What counts as harassment based on a disability?

Harassment based on a disability encompasses a range of behaviors. These behaviors belittle, threaten, or adversely target individuals because of their disability. It can manifest in various ways:

  • Verbal Harassment: This includes name-calling and ridiculing. It can also include making derogatory remarks about a person's disability. It might involve spreading rumors or making demeaning jokes about someone's condition.
  • Physical Harassment: This includes any form of physical harm or intimidation. Physical harassment can target a person due to their disability. Physical harassment can include actions like pushing, hitting, or tripping.
  • Exclusion or Isolation: Excluding someone deliberately is a form of harassment. It also includes isolating them from group interactions due to their disability. This may manifest in group projects or recreational activities. It can include any other scenario where the individual is intentionally left out.
  • Cyberbullying: There has been a recent exponential rise in digital communication. This also includes social media usage. There has also been a rise in harassment online. This can involve sending or receiving hurtful messages. It can also mean posting derogatory comments or sharing demeaning memes.

Behavior considered to be harassment often creates a hostile environment. This environment interferes with the individual's ability to learn. Schools, workplaces, and other institutions are responsible for this hostile environment. They must work to address and prevent such behavior. This ensures a safe and inclusive environment for all.

How are state laws for disabilities different from federal laws?

State laws for disabilities can vary from federal laws. Federal laws set a baseline of protection for individuals with disabilities nationwide. State laws can sometimes expand on these rights.

For instance, a state might choose to offer broader coverage. A state might extend protections to more categories of disabilities. These disabilities may not be explicitly covered at the federal level. The definition of a disability might also differ between state and federal laws. This can lead to changes in eligibility for certain protections or services.

State laws can complement federal laws. They might offer more protections or clarify aspects of federal mandates. It's essential to understand both state and federal guidelines. This can help you gain a comprehensive view of disability rights. There are differences in enforcement and available remedies. There may also be differences in the agencies responsible for overseeing compliance. For these reasons, familiarize yourself with both.

What is inappropriate punishment for a student with behavioral issues?

Sometimes, schools take disciplinary action that does not account for the student's needs. They do not consider the underlying reasons or circumstances concerning the student's behavior. In these situations, this can lead to inappropriate punishment for students with disabilities. They can also include any other emotional or psychological factors. Many schools rely on punitive measures instead of addressing the root cause of a student's behavior. This can often exacerbate the situation instead of resolving it.

It's also inappropriate to use physical punishments or any form of humiliation. This can have long-term negative effects on the student's mental well-being. It can also negatively affect their self-esteem. Effective discipline should be constructive. It should aim to understand and address the underlying cause. At the same time, it should also preserve students' dignity and rights.

How do I report a school for disability discrimination?

Reporting a school for disability discrimination is a significant step. This can help in advocating for the rights of individuals with disabilities. If you believe a school is engaging in discriminatory practices, it's crucial to take action.

Start by documenting any incidents or patterns of discrimination. Include the date, time, witnesses, and any communication involved. It's often beneficial to address concerns with school administrators. Or, you can talk to the special education department initially. They may be unaware of the issues or may take immediate corrective actions.

Sometimes, unfortunately, the situation doesn't improve even after reporting the problem. If this happens, you can file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). This is a department of the U.S. Department of Education. It oversees complaints related to disability discrimination in educational institutions. Additionally, each state has an education agency that can handle such grievances.

In some cases, you might consider seeking legal advice or help. Lawyers can guide you on the best course of action. They can also help ensure you're aware of your rights and help navigate the reporting process. They can also ensure students' due process rights. Always remember to keep copies of all documentation and correspondence. This can be crucial for any investigation or legal proceedings.

Getting Legal Help

If you feel a student's rights are being violated, seeking legal help is essential. There are many advocacy groups and lawyers with experience in special education law. Research local resources or contact information in your state or language (like Spanish). These professionals can help you get the help you need.

Speak to an education law attorney about your legal issue.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

Contact a qualified education attorney to help you navigate education rights and laws.

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options