The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142) was passed in 1975 and is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law enacted by Congress in 1990 that requires public schools to provide a free and appropriate education to all students ages 3 to 21. The law provides rights and protections to students and their parents. Under this legislation, students are identified though their schools and special education services and accommodations are designed to allow all students with diagnosed disabilities access to instruction appropriate to their needs. This law provides schools with funding to support these services.


The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is civil rights legislation that aims to prevent discrimination based on disability. It is an unfunded mandate, but colleges and universities that receive public funds must comply with this legislation. Students who choose to disclose a disability do so by providing documentation for review by a disability or access office at the college or university. A disability coordinator in that office then reviews the information and determines how best to serve the needs of the student while maintaining the standards of that institution.

Most colleges and universities provide accommodations based on the documentation provided, but few institutions waive core requirements even when this is recommended in an evaluation report. The mandate established through the ADA is not to change the standards set by the college or university but to provide the student with needed adjustments (accommodations) so that the student can participate fully in programs and activities. One determined by the institution that the student meets the guidelines established to be classified as an individual with the disability, students are expected to meet with instructors to discuss their needs and develop a plan for delivery of accommodations as these have been granted by the disability staff.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects qualified individuals with disabilities from discrimination. The law aims to prevent organizations and employers that receive aid from any federal department or agency from excluding an individual from access to programs and services or employment based on a disability.

How Colleges and Universities Interpret the ADA

Post-secondary institutions have flexibility in interpreting the ADA, but, under the ADA, they must provide reasonable accommodations to grant access to programs and services for students with disabilities. It is the responsibility of the student to disclose a disability. The disability office provides guidance on their procedures for documenting the disability.

Although students may present with a similar diagnosis, their needs may be different, so it is important for students to understand and be able to explain why an accommodation is needed and how the accommodation requested allows them equal access. What colleges and universities can provide may be different from what high schools have provided.

During the admission process, post-secondary institutions may not use disability status as part of their considerations. Students and their families, however, should seek information on how disability issues are addressed at that institution. The disability office website contains specific information about documentation of disability and the way they manage accommodation requests. Disability staff often are happy to talk to prospective students (and their families) about their policies and procedures.

It is important for the disability office to understand the disability-related needs of the student and have time to prepare for the accommodation to be delivered. Some accommodations, such as dietary needs, electronic access to books and real-time captioning of lectures, may take longer to arrange than others, so it is best to present documentation for review as early as possible. Contact with the disability office for guidance can take place as soon as admission is finalized.


See Resources page for more information about transition to college.