Law students and attorneys attending continuing legal education (“CLE”) coursework benefit from the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”). In recent years, the attitude towards disabled accommodations has improved. In the sixteen years since the ADA passed, students requesting disability accommodations are less likely to find themselves discriminated against by schools. Educators are acutely aware of ADA and Section 504 accommodations necessary to give those students an equal opportunity to participate in their courses.
Nevertheless, disagreements over the nature of the disability and the extent of appropriate and reasonable accommodations do arise. In cases where students disagree with accommodations provided by schools or CLE vendors, students can appeal under the ADA as well as under contract rights through school handbooks for other accommodations.
Section 504 protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination in programs that receive federal financial assistance. The ADA provides disability accommodations for all publicly accessible areas. Disabilities may be visible or not visible, such as a learning or mental disability. In essence, if the disability adversely limits one or more major life activities, such as completing educational requirements in school, the ADA and Section 504 apply. In post-secondary education, however, the school is required only to provide services for classroom use and not for personal use or for help outside the class.
Unlike the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, universities and graduate/post-graduate programs are NOT obliged to identify students with disabilities and may not inquire about a student’s disability due to potential admission process discrimination under Section 504. Thus, it is the student’s responsibility to inform the school of her or his disability.
When a school is informed of the disability, the student may expect reasonable accommodations that ensure equal classroom participation. Accommodations include physical access the classroom, such as wheelchair ramps, and access to coursework tools that present alternative means of presenting educational content, such as audiotapes.
Law students and post-graduate students are frequently permitted non-traditional means with which to demonstrate mastery of the course content. Examples include speech-to-text computer aids, digital recording of test answers, oversized blue books, enlarged print of reading materials, and separate testing environments.
However, reasonable accommodations do not permit either lowering academic standards or additional assistance outside of class. While a hearing impaired student may have a portable audio speaker in order to understand the classroom lecture, he is not entitled to additional lectures given to him outside of the classroom.
For Students and Attorneys with Disabilities: Rights and Procedures
Students and attorneys with disabilities must first submit to the educator an accommodations request and a specialist’s evaluation recommending accommodations. The disability must be a physical or mental impairment under the ADA. As education is considered a major life activity under the ADA and Section 504, the specialist must assess how the student’s impairment(s) substantially limits access to her studies. Unless the disability arises suddenly, students must request accommodations prior to the course.
A disability may be a temporary physical change that limits the student’s participation in her or his education, such as heart disease or childbirth. If a disabling condition is not a physical impairment for employment purposes, the same condition may entitle a student to Section 504 accommodations. Thus, law schools may provide accommodations for such conditions as childbirth, where a law school can waive the course attendance requirements and audiotape the courses for the student during her maternity leave.
Should the school grant different accommodations than what the student expected, an appeal may be made to determine whether the institution’s accommodations are adequate to allow the student to participate equally in his class work.
For Schools and Educators: Rights and Responsibilities
If the school receives any form of federal aid, it is obliged to provide accommodations under Section 504 as well as the ADA. If no federal funds are received, but the program is held in a public place (such as a commercial office or a private school building) only the ADA applies. If the program is held on private property, such as a home or small private club, and no federal funds are involved, the educators are not required to provide accommodations under the ADA or Section 504.
For example, if a CLE vendor does not receive federal funds to educate practitioners but holds the course in a public place, that Maryland CLE course is subject only to the requirements of the ADA and not Section 504.
For law students and attorneys, many educational programs have stepped up their services to better incorporate students with visible and hidden disabilities. For instance, reported on one website, www.deafattorneys.com, at the top of the list was University of Maryland, which in 2006 educated 5 deaf law students. These improvements in education access are due, in no small measure to the requirements of the ADA and Section 504.
Patrick J. Hoover, Principal of Patrick Hoover Law Offices, concentrates his practice in Education and Juvenile Law in Rockville Maryland. For more information, please visit www.hooverlaw.com.