Learning Disabilities and The Law: After High School: An Overview for Students

Senior student receiving advice from his school councilorDo the legal rights of students with learning disabilities continue after high school?

Legal rights may continue. It depends upon the facts in the individual case. Children with learning disabilities who receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (RA) in public elementary and secondary school may continue to have legal rights under federal laws in college programs and in employment. When students graduate from high school or reach age 21, their rights under the IDEA come to an end.

The rights that may continue are those under the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). To understand which rights continue, it is important to understand the three basic federal statutes that confer rights on people with disabilities.

The IDEA, initially enacted in 1975, provides for special education and related services for children with disabilities who need such education and services by reason of their disabilities. The IDEA provides for a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and for an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

The Rehabilitation Act, most notably Section 504, prohibits discrimination against children and adults with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act applies to public and private elementary and secondary schools and colleges that receive federal funding. It also applies to employers that receive federal funding.

The ADA prohibits discrimination against children and adults with disabilities and applies to all public and most private schools and colleges, to testing entities, and to licensing authorities, regardless of federal funding. Religiously controlled educational institutions are exempt from coverage. The ADA applies to private employers with 15 or more employees and to state and local governments.

It may help to consider an example of how rights may continue over many years. Jeff has a reading disorder. For a long time he wanted to become a lawyer, and now he is in law school. He received special education and related services under the IDEA during public elementary school. He went to a small private religious high school and received accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. He received extra test time on the SAT, during college, on the law school admission test (LSAT), and in law school. Under the ADA, he will be entitled to extra test time on the Bar Examination.

Do all people with learning disabilities have legal rights under the Rehabilitation Act and ADA?

No. Many have legal rights, but some do not. Under the Rehabilitation Act and ADA, a disability is an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, such as learning. Children and adults with learning disabilities, in many cases, have been found to have an impairment that substantially limits learning. That substantial limitation means that these individuals have a disability under the Rehabilitation Act and ADA and are protected under these laws.

Let’s look at an example. Jim was diagnosed with a reading disorder and math disorder when he was six years old. He received special education under the IDEA for most of elementary school to assist with reading and math. By the time he entered high school, his reading comprehension and speed tested as average, but he continued to receive services under the IDEA for his math disorder through the end of high school. After graduation, Jim enrolled in art school. The art school required one math course as a requirement for graduation, but had a policy allowing course substitutions for the math requirement for students with disabilities that interfered with math. Jim disclosed his math disorder, requested a course substitution for math, and submitted good professional documentation of his disability and his need for accommodation.

What rights do I have under the Rehabilitation Act and ADA as a person with a disability?

Basically you have the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of a disability. In the early school years, a child may be found ineligible under the IDEA but eligible under Section 504 and the ADA. The child would then receive services and accommodations under these anti-discrimination laws. In college, the Rehabilitation Act and ADA provide a right to accommodations for qualified persons with disabilities, so that courses, examinations, and activities will be accessible. These laws also require reasonable accommodations in the workplace for qualified individuals with disabilities.

Notice that the protections of these laws are for qualified persons with disabilities. This means you must be qualified to do the college program or job in order to be protected under the law. You may have to prove you are qualified. This is different from public elementary and secondary school, where you were presumed to be qualified to be educated.

An example will illustrate this point. Karen had a reading disorder, auditory processing and memory retrieval problems. She received special education throughout public school. She had extra time on the SAT and did well enough to get into a college social work program. She disclosed her disabilities, requested the accommodation of extra test time and a reader for examinations, and provided supporting professional documentation. She received the requested accommodations but failed essay tests anyway. She was dismissed from the social work program. She then sought to set aside the dismissal on the ground that she couldn’t take essay tests on such complex material because of her memory retrieval problem. In the end, the finding was that the school had provided all requested accommodations, that the school had done nothing improper, and that Karen was not qualified for the program.

What accommodations would I be entitled to in college?

College accommodations depend upon your particular disabilities and how they impact on you in the college setting. Accommodations might include: course accommodations (e.g., taped textbooks, use of a tape recorder, instructions orally and in writing, note taker, and priority seating) and examination accommodations (e.g., extended test time, reader, and quiet room).

What accommodations would I be entitled to in my job?

Workplace accommodations depend upon your particular disabilities and how they impact on performing the essential functions of your job. Accommodations might include: instructions orally and in writing, frequent and specific feedback from supervisors, quiet workspace, and training course accommodations.

What about ADHD? Is it covered under the law?

Yes, if it meets the criteria of the particular law. ADHD, while not expressly listed, may be covered by the IDEA under one of three categories: other health impairments, specific learning disabilities, and serious emotional disturbance. ADD has been found to be an impairment under the Rehabilitation Act and ADA and, like learning disabilities, is a disability if it substantially limits a major life activity, such as learning.

How do I assert my rights in college?

You need to disclose your disability to the college, request specific accommodations, and supply supporting professional documentation. In public school, the school system has a duty to identify students with disabilities. This is not so in college. The student has the responsibility to disclose the disability and to request accommodations. You must be specific about the accommodations that you need because of your disability. It is not enough to say that you have learning disabilities, so the college must help you.

Let’s look at an example. Sarah is taking courses at the community college. She has a reading disorder, expressive writing disorder, and ADD. She requested one and one-half time on tests, separate room for tests, a reader to read exam questions to her, and a scribe to take down her answers. She provided good professional documentation to support her request and was granted the requested accommodations.

There are student requests that the college is not obligated to grant. For example, if you did not request an accommodation on a test and failed it, generally you may not require the college to eliminate the failure from your record.

Should I disclose my disability at work?

It depends If you do not need accommodations in the application process; generally it is best to wait until after you have the job. Once on the job, if you see that a part of your job is a problem for you and believe you need an accommodation, it is best to act promptly and not allow a long period of poor performance. Also, at the time you disclose your disability, request the specific reasonable accommodations that will enable you to do your job.

Let’s consider an example. Carlos has problems with expressive writing, spelling, and fine motor coordination. After high school, he was hired as a security guard. On the job, he began to have problems with the reports he had to write. The reports were messy, had spelling errors, and were often submitted late. He sensed that his boss was becoming annoyed. Carlos disclosed his disabilities and requested that he be able dictate his reports into his tape recorder and then type them up on one of the computers (with spell check) at the main office at the end of each day. His request was granted.

How should I disclose my disability?

Disclose the disability in writing. Be confident and positive. Combine the disclosure with a request for accommodations that will enable you to perform the job. Provide professional documentation of your disability and need for accommodations.

What documentation of my disability and need for accommodations do I have to provide?

You need to provide documentation that establishes that you have a disability and that you need the accommodations you have requested. This might be a letter or report for the college or employer from the professional who has evaluated you. It should state the diagnosis and tests and methods used in the diagnostic process, evaluate how the impairment impacts on you, and recommend reasonable accommodations.

What if I find out I have a learning disability during college or even later?

A late diagnosis of learning disabilities may be questioned more than an early diagnosis. It is important to have excellent documentation of the disability. It may be important to explain why the disability was not evident earlier. For example, Janet was diagnosed during her first year of college with a reading disorder. There were reasons why the problem had not shown up earlier. She had done well in the elementary and secondary school because she went to schools that did not have timed tests. She put in the extra time needed to successfully complete her course work and her tests. In college, timed tests posed a major problem for her and led her to seek a thorough evaluation. She was able to document her reading disorder and her need for extra test time in college and medical school.

What if I take medication for ADD? Do I still have rights?

Yes. The existence of a disability is to be judged without reference to the possible beneficial effects of medication. The taking of prescription medication for ADD does not result in loss of disability status under the Rehabilitation Act and ADA or in loss of reasonable accommodations.

Can learning disabilities or ADD cause a person to be rejected for service in the Armed Forces?

It depends. Many individuals with learning disabilities or ADD join the Armed Forces and report that the structure and clear expectations help them to do well. However, these conditions may prevent some individuals from obtaining the required score on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test. The Armed Forces are not required to grant accommodations, such as extended test time, on the qualifying test. Further, military regulations provide that academic skills deficits that interfere with school or work after the age of 12 may be a cause for rejection for service in the Armed Forces. These regulations also provide that current use of medication, such as Ritalin or Dexedrine, to improve academic skills is disqualifying for military service.

Can I be fired from my job or dismissed from college even if I establish that I have a disability?

Yes. Having a disability does not create absolute entitlement to a job or college education. The purpose of the anti-discrimination laws is to make sure you have equal opportunity. For example, if you have math disorder and cannot pass a required math course (with no substitutions permitted) for an engineering program, then you would not be qualified for the engineering program.

What about confidentiality of disability records I file with a college or an employer?

Colleges generally have confidentiality policies with respect to disability material. The employment provisions of the ADA contain confidentiality provisions. However, these provisions are not as strong as the IDEA provision that provides for a right to delete disability records contained in your public school files.

For example, Ruth’s parents submitted professional documentation of her learning disabilities and depression to her public high school. Ruth submitted the same documentation to her first employer when she disclosed her disabilities and requested job accommodations. After leaving her first job and being hired by a new employer, Ruth decided that she did not need accommodations in the new job. She also decided to request deletion of her disability information from prior files, while retaining copies in her own files in case she would need the records later. The public high school complied with her request. Her first employer informed her that the disability information could not be deleted but was kept in a separate, confidential file.

If I don’t get what I ask for, should I sue?

A lawsuit is not the first step. First, you must evaluate your own position. It may be wise to consult with a lawyer to review the strong points and weak points in your case. If your case has merit, and you wish to pursue it, then follow these steps: communicate to the college or employer the basic facts and the reasons why you are entitled to what you have requested, negotiate by marshaling the facts that support your request, consider alternative dispute resolution (e.g., mediation and arbitration), and finally consider formal proceedings, such as litigation in the courts.

Remember, even if you have a strong case, it does not mean you must take legal action. You may decide that you wish to put your energy into moving on to a new college program or job rather than disputing events at the prior program.

Author:   Patricia H. Latham, JD, in conjunction with the LDA School-age and Postsecondary Advocacy Committees

Comments

  1. MARION SILAS says:

    I am a NYC Juvenile Counselor and the mother of a MMR, learning disabled 21yr old son Mikal who graduates from high school in June and dreams of attending college and working in the summer time. I am truly thankful for the information I just received from you. I was so worried about my son’s future, now I am going to share this information with the other parents.

    • LDA of America says:

      Hello Marion, Thank you for your comment and we’re thrilled that the information you received is timely and provides help for you and your son.

  2. My Daughter was definitely discriminated against for Nursing Degree at a state college they asked for a copy of her IEP and 10 days later she received her letter of rejection even though her GPA was 3.9 and she is 35 out of 275 in her class maybe we should have never disclosed it until after she was admitted. It’s sad seeing her so discouraged . Unable to use her scholarships because she was not accepted anywhere in her home state.

    • Myles Glasgow says:

      Perhaps the rejection was a mistake or could be challenged. State colleges need tuition money and do not turn it down just because a person had an IEP. Did she have the support of her state’s Department of Human Services’ Department of Rehabilitation responsible for providing students with disability financial support for college costs? Perhaps the grantors of her scholarships could have helped to persuade the college of her choice to reconsider their rejection of her? It helps to have well connected and intelligent advocates, even a lawyer, advocate for a person with a disability, but the colleges usually have staff of their own who can advocate for an applicant to be accepted. Most colleges have those staff and a face to face interview with them can bring them on board to advocate within the institution for an applicant. Check out “The K&W Guide to College Programs & Services for Students with Learning Disabilities of AD/HD by MaryBeth Kravets, MA and Imy Wax, MS, published by Random House, Inc. New York for The Princeton Review, see PrincetonReview.com. at 1111 Speen Street. Suite 550, Framingham, Massachusetts, 01701.
      If necessary, get a good local advocate or attorney experienced in challenging colleges rejecting applicants with special education needs but aim for the college or university with the best program for your daughter which you might learn of from the above referenced book. Good luck.

  3. Loretta Sommers says:

    I have a question that I hope you can clarify for me. My nephew was identified with a learning disability in elementary school. His disability affected his ability to calculate quickly and reading comprehension. He received support throughout his high school career. He attended Ivy Tech and graduated with a degree as a paramedic. He is trying to complete paramedic state license. He has now taken the test four times and still has not passed the test. The test is comprised of 5 sections. He has passed some parts and come very close on others, but all sections have to be passed or the whole test has to be retaken. After not passing two times, he applied for accommodations and was allowed a quiet room with extra time. After the third time, he was required to take additional hours of classes, which he did. This young man’s goal has always been to be a paramedic. He had to work very hard in college and he continues to study everyday. He is a member of our local fire department. He has passed his practicals ( hands on test). He had asked to have the test read to him, but “The Certification Section of Indiana Emergency Services”, the governing body for the exam, would not allow it. Can this be appealed?

    • Hi, I was just wondering if you had found any information on this…. I have a family member in the same situation, he is currently a volunteer, but wants badly to be a full time firefighter!! The written test is what is holding him back, because of his reading disability.

  4. Fabian says:

    Good site you have here.. It’s hard to find high quality writing like yours nowadays.
    I honestly appreciate people like you! Take care!!

  5. Lynda Packard says:

    I am so hoping someone can give us some hope. My daughter has dyscalculia and can not do college algebra. Period. She received a waiver at community college but we can’t find any 4 year college who will offer he waiver. She has suffered through 2 developmental math classes but can’t pass the final and is nowhere near being able to do the college level math. Is there no hope of completing college?? She is about to give up. We are willing to go wherever she needs.
    Thank you

    • Myles Glasgow says:

      Did she have the support of her state’s Department of Human Services’ Department of Rehabilitation responsible for providing students with disability financial support for college costs? It helps to have well connected and intelligent advocates, even a lawyer, advocate for a person with a disability, but the colleges usually have staff of their own who can advocate for an applicant to be accepted. Most colleges have those staff and a face to face interview with them can bring them on board to advocate within the institution for an applicant. Check out “The K&W Guide to College Programs & Services for Students with Learning Disabilities of AD/HD by MaryBeth Kravets, MA and Imy Wax, MS, published by Random House, Inc. New York for The Princeton Review, see PrincetonReview.com. at 1111 Speen Street. Suite 550, Framingham, Massachusetts, 01701.

  6. I am an adult that has lived with OCD for more years than I can remember. I worked as a public employee for Washington State for 15 years when my supervisor of all those years retired. She tried to warn me about how much she protected me (and my job) over the years and to be really careful. Wow was she right, within a couple months the director of our program that I had dedicated my life to, at times neglected my child for, and spent tons of my own money for (without reimbursement) put me on notice. Demanded that in order for me to keep my job, I would need to go to a psychologist of their choosing, being able to have open knowledge of my sessions, and be “cured” in roughly 6 months. 5 of those I would be out on medical leave after having gastric bypass surgery (but still expected to go to my psychologist appointments without fail). Needless to say feeling completely discriminated against and set up for failure, I sadly felt forced to tender my resignation. I decided to return to school (ironically at the school I just left). I guess I should have known better. From the first moment on campus, I have been met with, in my opinion, discrimination from the fin aid department being not willing to help me by clearly outlining what forms I needed to turn and clearly marking deadlines. Upon my explaining to them that I had accommodations awarded to me by their disabilities office, they started making enrolling and getting money for school virtually impossible. Today I was notified that my “file was under review, and they (conveniently) have found many things that they will “be looking into”. I feel so picked on, like they are trying to make it so difficult for me to get fin aid, so not being able to afford it, I will give up. Add that to teachers that refuse to make any time extensions or any other appropriate accommodations, unless I threaten reporting them to the president or the Dean and sometimes not even then. I’m so ready to give up… I guess this is my last hope for ideas… please help

  7. I went to a four year college to a two year college I have a special education diploma now my two year college is saying that they might drop me because to them with a special education diploma is on a diploma at all what should I do???

  8. my name is keisha I’m 42 years old interested in going back to school I have a learning disability I have been working for16 years but I need a new career and today I stepped out for the first time to let everyone know that I have a disabilityI want to go back to school

  9. My stepson has received SSI benefits for a learning disability since childhood. He is now 18, still a Sophomore in high school, and has difficulty spelling/reading above a 4th grade level. Will this prevent him from joining the military?

Speak Your Mind

*