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Attorney Paul Grossman on Legal Rights for College Students With LD

There are no IEPs in college, but there are protections under federal law for students with learning disabilities.

By Kristin Stanberry , Paul Grossman, J.D.

Civil rights attorney Paul Grossman has done legal work on behalf of students with disabilities - including learning disabilities (LD) - for nearly three decades. Paul assigns much of his commitment to civil rights to his educational experiences as an individual with LD. Paul graduated high school as a remedial reader, left college because he could not pass spanish, and returned, finally graduating near the top of his law school class.

We asked Paul about the legal rights and responsibilities of college students with learning disabilities. Note: Throughout this interview Mr. Grossman was speaking entirely in his private capacity. No official support or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Education is intended or should be inferred. Following is a transcript of our interview with Paul.

Q: Your track record and experience in civil rights law is impressive. How does it relate to your work in disability law?

A: My career as a civil rights lawyer did not begin nor will it end just with the issue of disability. I'm old enough to have handled a few school desegregation cases in the South and some of the first large urban school district cases on behalf of limited English speaking children. I remember when women did not get into graduate school. Today, women make up more than half the student bodies of some our best medical and law schools. In each of these areas, progress toward equal educational opportunity has been driven as much from recognition of the benefits of diversity as the impact of the law. Today, diversity in the student body with regard to race, national origin, and gender are considered an essential element of a high quality education for every student in the classroom. Now, we must make the same case for students with disabilities, including students with learning disabilities. I am quite clear that students with disabilities greatly enhanced the teaching experiences in my classes at the Hastings College of Law.

It always disturbs me that so few people know how much individuals with disabilities have benefited from the race, national origin, and gender civil rights movements and equally important that individuals with disabilities had to organize, engage in civil disobedience, and risk their health to get our disability rights laws into effect. The first major piece of disability rights legislation was Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The regulations that make it possible to enforce Section 504 would not exist but for such activities.

Q: Many parents have a good grasp of the legal rights which Section 504 and the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) provide their children through high school. From a legal standpoint, what do they (and their kids) need to know about the legal rights of college students with LD?

A: It's critical for them to understand that the IDEA does not apply to higher education and that Section 504 applies quite differently in college than in high school. There are no IEPs in college!

A student cannot assume that, just because he was found to be eligible for services under the IDEA or Section 504 in high school, the same evaluation documentation will be sufficient in college. Further, the range of services and accommodations that are available in college are not the same as in high school. The due process rights in high school are quite extensive; by comparison, the ones in college are fairly limited.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to elementary school, middle school, high school, and to virtually every college and university. The truth is that, in elementary and secondary education, the ADA has little impact. In higher education, the ADA has great importance. Nonetheless, especially for students with learning disabilities, in higher education, the single most important law is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This law applies to nearly every college and university in the United States.

If you are not a "qualified" individual, neither Section 504 nor the ADA protects you. You must meet the essential academic requirements for admission or for staying in college. You must also meet the essential technical requirements, which usually pertains to two different things. One is the ability to comply with the code of conduct. Students in college with disabilities who get into discipline problems will not be able to avail themselves of manifestation hearings, etc. Generally, their disabilities are not very pertinent to disciplinary proceedings. The other types of technical qualification tend to pertain to physical performance standards. For example, if you want to be admitted to a dental hygiene program, you may have to show certain fine dexterity skills that are essential to the task. Even if you don't have those fine motor skills because you have a disability, you may well not get excused from meeting those qualifications and requirements.

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.


Comments from readers

"I was a student at a Nursing School in Sacramento in which I requested accommodations for my disability. I notified school officials as well as the director of nursing and was ignored. Because the program was very new I feel that they were not knowledgeable in dealing with the matter and in fact was asked what 504 accommodations were by the DON. We were also told to take a course that wasn’t required and told that if we did not we could not pass the program. Students were told to go to another school in Solano and take a one day course for $300 dollars and instructed students to bring cash. I refused as I knew this was wrong. I brought this to the attention of the school principal Mrs. Compton and vice Principal Mr. Choate. They had no idea this was being done by the DON (director of nursing) and were confused since the school there had the same course for $45 dollars. But the point was that it was not a required course and was told by the board of nursing that if the cour! se was not required and the DON was threatening to fail students it was fraudulent. They were many issues with the program that I spoke up about for myself and behalf of others that were basically ignored and even threatened if we complained we would be expelled. I even received an email from another teacher that stated that the DON gets rid of people that speak up. After many conversations to the principal and being told by the DON that my disability was an issue for him and he felt I was a “liability� to the nursing field I was dismissed from the program temporarily due to my disability. A complaint was filed and two months later the DON was fired by the district and the principal suddenly retired. I feel that my civil rights were violated by the school as well as discriminated based on my documented disability. "
"Where can I find a lawyer to represent me? I am a student with a LD, and my college refuses to provide academic accommodations, even though the school policy, and section 504 of the ADA, require them to do so. My LD has been documented with a DSM, and I therefore have evidence of my disability. "