It is important for you to know what rights and legal protections are available for students with disabilities. Your experiences in higher education may be very different from the challenges you faced in high school. One important difference is that you will need to advocate for yourself more often. Because there are fewer protections that schools are required to provide by law, you will become your most important advocate. This means that you need to take responsibility and initiative to understand how your disability affects the way you learn and live. If you understand your rights and responsibilities, you will be better able to work with your college or university to help you be successful in your studies.

There are several laws that impact higher education. The main laws are:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – covers both public and private higher education institutions[1]
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act[2] – covers all schools, colleges, and universities that receive federal funds.

The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (OCR), enforces both of these laws.

It is important to know that a higher education institution could be subject to both of these laws. If you have concerns about what laws your college or university must follow, you should consult a lawyer who specializes in higher education law.


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),[3] public and private higher education institutions may not discriminate against a person with a disability. This law applies to the application and admissions process, in addition to the time that a person with a disability attends the school.

For example, a higher education institution cannot exclude or screen out applicants who have a disability during the admissions process. The school also is required by law to make accommodations for students with disabilities in several areas, including education, transportation, and employment. For a school or university, this law applies to educational programs, as well as other, extracurricular activities conducted on or off campus.

Harassing a student because of his or her disability also is a form of discrimination. Disability harassment also is prohibited by the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Disability harassment is intimidation or abusive behavior toward a student based on disability that creates a hostile environment. This behavior interferes with the student’s participation in the school’s services or programs.

Examples of harassing behavior include:

  • Name-calling
  • Written statements that threaten or intimidate
  • Conduct that physically threatens or humiliates the student

Harassing behavior usually must be severe or persistent in order to be considered discrimination.

Discrimination, including harassing behavior, may also be prohibited by state and local laws.


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Another federal law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act,[4] applies to higher education institutions that receive funds from the federal government. Under this law, a student may request accommodations and services based on a disability. The student may be required to provide proof, through documentation, of her disability and how the disability affects life activity or academic performance. In addition to being required to provide appropriate academic adjustments, the school also may be required to provide comparable and accessible housing to students with disabilities at the same cost as it provides housing to students without disabilities.

The Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education also is responsible for enforcing this law.

In addition to the ADA and Section 504, there are other laws that are important to higher education institutions. The following sections describe some of those laws.


Higher Education Opportunity Act

The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA)[5] encourages colleges and universities to improve accessibility for students with disabilities, through support services and collaboration with other organizations.

There are several important parts of the HEOA:

  • Provides grants to help fund the development of programs for college students with disabilities. These include programs to help students transition from high school to education after high school.
  • Allows students with intellectual disabilities to qualify for certain types of federal financial aid for the first time.
  • Encourages the development of instructional materials that are accessible for students with disabilities.
  • Encourages greater accessibility of financial aid information for students with disabilities.

Because of funding provided through HEOA, there probably will be an increased number of programs at colleges and universities that are specially designed for students with intellectual disabilities.


Delaware Equal Accommodations Law

Under the Delaware Equal Accommodations Law (DEAL),[6] a “place of public accommodation” cannot discriminate against people with disabilities. The term “place of public accommodation” means an area or organization that serves the general public. Some common examples are stores, restaurants, or banks. Examples also includes government agencies (state or local) and state-funded agencies that perform public functions.  This may include institutions of higher education in Delaware.[7]

Complaints about discrimination in public accommodations under the Delaware Equal Accommodations Law are handled by the Division of Human Relations. You may call the Division at (302) 577-5050 or visit their website at


Other Laws

  • The Workforce Investment Act (WIA)[8] reforms federal job training programs that provides career and training assistance programs. These programs include vocational education after high school.


  • The Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act (DD Act)[9] focuses on people with developmental disabilities. It provides federal financial assistance to states and public and non-profit agencies to support community services that promote independence and productivity.

[1] Title II of the ADA applies to public institutions; Title III applies to private institutions, with the exception of religiously-affiliated schools.

[2] 34 C.F.R. Part 104

[3] 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. 28 C.F.R. Part 35, 28 C.F.R. Part 36.

[4] 29 U.S.C. § 794, 34 C.F.R. Part 104

[5] 20 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq.

[6] 6 Del. C. § 4500 et seq.

[7] Under a prior version of the law, DEAL was found by the Division of Human Relations and Department of Justice to NOT apply to some institutions of higher education in Delaware.  However, the definition of a “place of public accommodation” was changed in 2006 to add state agencies, local government agencies, and state-funded agencies performing public functions.  The Disabilities Law Program is unaware of any cases that have looked at whether this new definition includes Delaware universities and colleges.

[8] 29 U.S.C. § 2801 et seq.

[9] 42 U.S.C. § 15001 et seq.