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Dear Colleague Letter

OFFICE OF THE ASSISTANT SECRETARY

July 25, 2008

Dear Colleague:

As we celebrate the 18th anniversary of the enactment of the landmark legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq., on July 26, 2008, we reflect upon accomplishments made towards providing educational opportunities free from disability discrimination.  The ADA applies in many aspects of American life including elementary, secondary and postsecondary education.  Title II of the ADA (Title II) seeks to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities, including students, are not excluded from or denied the benefits of services, programs or activities of a public entity by reason of disability or otherwise subjected to discrimination by public entities.

America is undeniably stronger because of the ADA and the contributions individuals with disabilities have made to every aspect of our society.  The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has played an important role in implementing and enforcing the ADA, by working with state and local education agencies as well as postsecondary institutions to make groundbreaking strides in providing access to opportunities for students with disabilities on a nondiscriminatory basis.  We celebrate the continuation of this progress and are reminded that the foundation of the ADA began 35 years ago this September with the enactment of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), 29 U.S.C. § 794. 

At the public elementary and secondary school level, Section 504 and Title II and their implementing regulations have furthered a broad mandate for nondiscrimination, including: 1) requiring that public schools provide students with disabilities a free appropriate public education; 2) ensuring that these students are educated with nondisabled students to the maximum extent appropriate; and 3) providing that evaluation and placement of these students complies with federal requirements.

As the ADA celebrates its 18th anniversary, OCR takes a moment to reflect specifically on the issues concerning college-age students with disabilities.  Increasingly, after completing high school, students with disabilities continue their education at institutions such as two- and four-year colleges and universities and at vocational and career schools.  Data from the U.S. Department of Education's most recent National Postsecondary Student Aid Study indicated that, in the 2003-04 academic year, more than 2 million postsecondary students reported having some type of disability.  They accounted for more than 11 percent of postsecondary students and represented a 2 percent increase in the number of postsecondary students who reported having disabilities just four years earlier.  Currently, postsecondary institutions routinely provide academic adjustments, auxiliary aids and services, program access, and housing accommodations to students with disabilities as appropriate to meet the students’ documented disability-related needs.

Together, OCR and the academic community learned how to “level the playing field” without lowering academic standards.  We have demonstrated that sign language interpreters, real time captioning, textbooks in Braille, accessible web sites, and other simple steps often successfully allow students with hearing, visual, and learning disabilities to meaningfully master the same course content as others.  Several of you have gone beyond the minimum steps required by the law and formed consortia to achieve economies of scale in implementing accommodations such as in the production of alternate media.  You have also learned how to adjust test conditions to validly measure what students with disabilities have learned rather than merely measuring the impact of their disabilities.

We now know that many changes originally intended to benefit students with disabilities often improve the college experience for everyone.  A college’s math course redesigned to meet the needs of students with learning disabilities turned out to be helpful to many other students in the math course.  Real time captioning intended for students who are deaf or hard of hearing provides every student two ways to receive the instructional material.  Captioned video has proven to be not only accessible but becomes searchable and reusable as components of future classes.  “Universal design” in web materials enhances the flexibility and cross platform usability of instructional sites for all students across different operating systems, browsers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and multimedia. 

Today, we face new challenges and must implement creative solutions to meet those challenges.  In that vein, I am pleased to announce a groundbreaking “Wounded Warriors Initiative” to help meet one such challenge.  Many veterans returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom are “individuals with disabilities” who intend to pursue higher education.  (See “So You Want to Go Back to School” at http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/back-to-school-2008.html.)  Many of these “wounded warriors” have acquired disabilities during their service, making them eligible for protection under the ADA and Section 504.  Unlike the vast majority of students with disabilities who attend college, warriors with disabilities often have no history of receiving disability-based accommodations in high school.  Accordingly, they are less familiar with their disability-related rights and responsibilities.  Most colleges and universities have not had a lot of experience in accommodating students with the types of disabilities common among wounded warriors, including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, late acquired blindness or deafness, significantly disfiguring burns, and multiple amputations, among others.  

Traditional means of support may not work:  warriors with late-acquired deafness may not know American Sign Language, but can benefit from real time captioning and other technologies; those with late-acquired blindness may not know Braille but can use other forms of media such as digital or recorded books.  As in other contexts, individualized accommodations should be selected through an interactive process between the institution and the student.  For example, a particular student with PTSD may need advance warning of fire alarm tests or a private dorm room, while another individual with PTSD may benefit from having a roommate and being socialized to the greatest extent possible. 

Under our new Wounded Warriors Initiative, we will support veterans with disabilities who have questions about their ADA rights and responsibilities. We also will work with institutions and service providers wanting to know how best to support students with disabilities and encourage institutions to adopt innovative approaches to serve this important population.  Some are already doing so; some colleges are successfully experimenting with placing transition classes directly at Veterans Administration (VA) facilities or developing cooperative efforts with VA rehabilitation services to help warriors with disabilities transition smoothly to the college environment.

During our 18-year journey since the enactment of the ADA and our 35-year journey since the enactment of Section 504, measurable and undisputable progress has been made, largely due to the initiatives of education institutions at all levels and the work of OCR to eliminate disability discrimination.   Despite this undeniable progress, our collective mission is not fully accomplished.  Inaccessible schools, postsecondary institutions and programs still exist, and disability discrimination still continues.  At OCR, each year complaints of disability discrimination comprise the largest percentage of civil rights complaints filed with our office – to date in fiscal year 2008 (from October 1, 2007 to present) we have received more than 2800 complaints alleging disability discrimination, approximately 50 percent of all complaints filed with OCR.  During the remainder of my tenure as assistant secretary for civil rights, I remain committed to enforcing Title II of the ADA and Section 504 and providing technical assistance to those institutions, service providers, and individuals that require and seek assistance. 

I hope you will join me in celebrating our continued efforts and our shared interest in realizing the full potential of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Sincerely yours,
 
Stephanie Monroe
Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights
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Last Modified: 07/25/2008