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.
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.
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.
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