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Student Disability Services

Laws Apply to High School & College Students

IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 are very different, leading to miscommunication between college and high school staff who have studied only the statutes applying to their institution.

In high schools, for example, under IDEA, special education programs may apply primarily to Learning Disabilities. High school students who are in wheelchairs, may fall under a subpart of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and be referred to as their '504' clients. They will develop IEPs (Individual Education Plans) for these students simply because that is the procedure they have available under their IDEA mandated program. However, Section 504 does not require IEPs in high school or at post-secondary institutions.

The misunderstanding comes from the practice of telling families that the '504 Plan' developed at a high school will be binding on a college or university, since they have heard us also talk about Section 504 applying to colleges.

High School:

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
  • Subpart D of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  • Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Civil Rights Restoration Act

Post Secondary:

  • Subpart E of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  • Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Civil Rights Restoration Act


In high school the school has responsibilities which include the following:

  • Identify students with disabilities
  • Provide assessment of learning disabilities
  • Classify disabilities according to specified diagnostic categories
  • Involve parents or guardians in placement decisions
  • Provide certain non-academic services
  • Place students in programs where they can benefit (in any way) subject to placement committee and parent participation and approval
  • Structure a large part of the student's weekly schedule
  • Modify educational programs
  • Prepare Individualized Education Plans (IEP's)
  • Provide a free and appropriate education
  • Provide appropriate services by the school nurse or health service

The post-secondary level responsibilities change as follows:

  • Protect a student's right to privacy and confidentiality
  • Provide access to programs and services which are accessible to persons without disabilities
  • Inform students of office location and procedures for requesting accommodations
  • Accept and evaluate verifying documentation
  • Determine that a mental or physical impairment causes a substantial limitation of a major life activity (see definition of disability) based on student-provided verifying documents
  • Determine whether students are otherwise qualified for participation in the program or service, with or without accommodations; and if so, whether a reasonable accommodation is possible
  • Make reasonable accommodations for students who meet the above qualifying criteria
  • Provide reasonable access to program and service choices equal to those available to the general public
  • Make reasonable adjustments in instructional programs and teaching methods which do not alter the essential content of a course or program
  • Assure that off-campus and contracted program facilities also comply with Section 504 (Subpart E) and ADA
  • Inform students of their rights and responsibilities

(Other differences may exist for post-secondary institutions which provide housing programs, health services, psychological counseling services, and extensive international programs.)

In contrast to the responsibilities of high schools, at the post secondary level, responsibilities change as follows:

Students have a responsibility to:

  • Self identify or disclose their disability
  • Provide verifying documentation
  • Obtain assessment and test results and provide them to the College
  • Act as independent adults
  • Arrange their own weekly schedules
  • Contact their instructors regarding assistance
  • Arrange for and obtain their own personal tutoring

Post secondary institutions are not required to:

  • Reduce or adjust the essential requirements of a course or program
  • Conduct testing and assessment of learning disabilities
  • Provide personal attendants
  • Provide personal or private tutors (but tutoring services normally available to persons without disabilities must be accessible to persons with disabilities who are otherwise qualified for those services)
  • Prepare 'Individual Education Plans' (IEPs)


Privacy: Students in colleges and universities are considered adults, with privacy and confidentiality protections. College staff cannot talk with parents and guardians about a student's academic activities as was typical in K-12.

Eligibility for special education services in high schools is diagnosis driven (i.e., the student must be diagnosed as having one of eleven specified conditions). Eligibility for reasonable accommodations in post-secondary institutions is driven by severity of impact on a major life activity (i.e., a mental or physical impairment which significantly limits a major life activity).

College students must structure and plan their own study time; colleges do not set up study periods or provide for time to do homework in most classes. Professors may differ with their attendance requirement, scheduling assignment due dates and exams. The student must study each professor's syllabus for each class.

Students with disabilities must act to identify their disabilities; must take specific action to request accommodations for their disabilities, if desiring to so request; and must provide verifying documentation such as psycho-educational test results, medical documents and doctor's statements. The documentation must verify the disability, describe the extent of the impairment and provide information which verifies the need for specific accommodation.

Adapted from the Oklahoma City Community College - Office of Disability Services