OFFICE OF THE ASSISTANT SECRETARY
July 25, 2008
You have honored your country through your military service. You may have earned educational benefits as well. If you are a wounded warrior, you may wonder whether it will be difficult for you to go back to school and what accommodations might be available. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) prohibit discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities by covered entities, including most colleges and universities. Many wounded warriors are people with disabilities protected by these laws.
Since the G.I. Bill was introduced during World War II, millions of veterans have used their educational benefits to return to school and improve the quality of their lives. A college graduate, on average, over his or her lifetime, will earn nearly one million dollars more than a high school graduate. The earnings gap is even greater for persons with disabilities who graduate from high school and persons with disabilities who graduate from college. Having a disability should not deter a veteran from using the educational benefits he or she has earned. Veterans with disabilities who are well informed about their rights and the laws protecting persons with disabilities will find that many perceived barriers and challenges can be removed or addressed, or simply do not exist.
YOUR RIGHTS AS A STUDENT WITH A DISABILITY
Individuals with disabilities have important protections and rights under Federal law. The ADA and Section 504 prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability and apply to nearly every postsecondary institution in the United States. Among other provisions, these laws require postsecondary institutions to provide academic adjustments, auxiliary aids or reasonable modifications (also referred to as accommodations) to school policies and practices for students with mental or physical disabilities. These laws protect students with a variety of disabilities as defined by the laws’ criteria, including loss of limb, severe burns, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, deafness, vision disabilities, and learning disabilities.
To receive academic adjustments, veterans with disabilities must be proactive! Postsecondary schools do not have a duty to find students with disabilities. Rather it is incumbent on a student to notify a school about any disability that may require academic adjustments.
After admission, if you believe you will need academic adjustments, find out which office provides services to students with disabilities. Contact the office as early as possible and determine what supporting documentation is required to establish that you have a disability and are eligible for academic adjustments. You should expect the postsecondary school to work with you in an interactive process to identify the needed documentation and to determine the appropriate academic adjustments, if any. If you do not actively participate in the process, you are much less likely to receive appropriate academic adjustments.
INFORMATION YOU MAY NEED TO PROVIDE
Institutions of higher education are not required to conduct or pay for an evaluation to document your disability and need for an academic adjustment, although some institutions do. Some institutions may help you locate a qualified individual who may be able to provide the required documentation. The State’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agency or similar agency may also be a source of relevant information, through the evaluations it conducts to determine eligibility for VR services, and through the Individualized Plan for Employment developed for students who are determined VR-eligible. Evaluations and documentation developed by military or Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) personnel may be helpful to this process if they address the extent of the impairment and need for academic adjustments. In general, documentation focusing on how the disability affects learning and other major life activities related to the postsecondary setting would be appropriate.
The amount of information a postsecondary school may seek from an individual requesting academic adjustments is limited. The school is entitled only to information needed to provide a sufficient basis to evaluate the student’s disability and whether requested academic adjustments are necessary and appropriate for the individual.
It is important to note that the standards used by the military in determining disability for purposes of separation and benefits, as well as the standards used by the VA to review disability claims, are different from the definition of disability in Section 504 and the ADA. Therefore, a determination by the military or VA that a veteran did not have a disability at the completion of service does not necessarily mean the veteran does not have a disability for purposes of Section 504 or the ADA, and does not necessarily limit a veteran’s ability to independently document disabilities and receive academic adjustments in a postsecondary setting. Likewise, a finding by the military or VA that a veteran is entitled to disability-related benefits or services does not mean that he or she is automatically entitled to receive academic adjustments in a postsecondary setting.
WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT
Depending on the level and type of disability involved, some examples of common academic adjustments are reduced course loads, priority in class registration, extra time on examinations, real-time transcription technology or sign language interpreters for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, audio books for people with vision disabilities, and modified desks that will accommodate wheelchairs. Neither the ADA nor Section 504 requires postsecondary schools to provide personal attendants to persons with disabilities, but many schools will help students find funding for one through other sources.
Based on your own documentation and individual circumstances, postsecondary schools should help you identify necessary and appropriate accommodations. Some postsecondary schools may extend academic adjustments on a temporary basis while you are collecting your documentation. If you have questions, you should talk to a counselor or other staff member in the postsecondary school office or department that provides services to students with disabilities.
As noted above, the interactive process between the postsecondary institution and the student should result in academic adjustments that the postsecondary school will put into operation. A school may reject a proposed academic adjustment because it would fundamentally alter the school’s program (for example, by lowering its academic standards) or because it would result in undue financial or administrative burdens. Generally, though, once it has agreed to an academic adjustment, the school should abide by the results of the interactive process. If a postsecondary school decides that it cannot implement an academic adjustment, it must work with you to find an effective alternative. If you believe that the academic adjustments are not meeting your needs, it is your responsibility to notify the school as soon as possible.
The U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is responsible for ensuring that postsecondary institutions afford all individuals an equal educational opportunity with regard to race, national origin, age, sex, and disability. Veterans with disabilities are among those protected by these laws.
For more information from OCR on receiving academic adjustments in postsecondary school go to http://www.ed.gov/policy/rights/guid/ocr/disability.html and http://www.ed.gov/ocr/docs/auxaids.html. Other information about the prohibition against disability discrimination in education is available at http://www.ed.gov/ocr/disabilityresources.html.
OCR has the authority to investigate and resolve complaints alleging that a postsecondary institution is violating civil rights laws, including laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability. For example, if you believe that a postsecondary school has not established an adequate process for you to request academic adjustments or to allow you to appeal decisions with which you disagree, you may file a complaint with OCR. In addition, if the school agrees to provide academic adjustments and then fails to do so, you may file a complaint with OCR. It is also unlawful for a postsecondary institution to retaliate against you because you have requested an academic adjustment. Complaints can be filed with OCR in writing or online. For specific information on filing an OCR complaint, please call 1-800-421-3481, TDD 1-877-521-2172, email at email@example.com, or visit our website at http://www.ed.gov/ocr/know.html.