The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which traces its origins in the U.S. government’s efforts to provide rehabilitative services to military veterans after World War I, was the first civil rights law explicitly ensuring the rights of individuals with disabilities to employment and services. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act specifically prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in programs receiving federal funds. Insofar as most postsecondary institutions either directly or indirectly receive federal funds in the form of grants or financial assistance to students, they are required to adhere to Section 504’s antidiscrimination requirements. Further, courts have interpreted the term “recipient of federal funds” broadly, so that institutions are subject to Section 504’s mandates if any of their programs receive governmental aid (Bob Jones University v. United States, 1983). Section 504 paved the way for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, a statute that extended many of the Rehabilitation Act’s protections to the private sector. This entry reviews the provisions of the act, describes key cases that have interpreted it, and discusses its implications both for employees and for students.
Provisions of the Rehabilitation Act
Section 504’s provisions are similar to those in Titles VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, both of which forbid employment discrimination in programs that receive federal financial assistance on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Section 504 covers individuals who have physical or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities, have a record of such impairments, or are regarded as having such impairments. This definition was amended by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, which made it clear that individuals who suffer from epilepsy, diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and other ailments are protected even when measures may be taken to mitigate the effects of their conditions. Even so, the amendments specifically offer an exception so that entities can consider the mitigating effects of, for example, ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses in determining whether visual impairments substantially limit major life activities. Major life activities include everyday tasks such as caring for oneself and performing manual tasks along with actions such as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. Specifically, Section 504 states that
no otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service. (29 U.S.C. § 794)
Two major U.S. Supreme Court cases, the second of which was set in a postsecondary institution, have made it clear that individuals are otherwise qualified under Section 504’s terms if they are capable of meeting all of a program’s requirements in spite of their disabilities (School Board of Nassau County v. Arline, 1987; Southeastern Community College v. Davis, 1979). In order to be otherwise qualified, then, individuals with disabilities need to be able, with reasonable accommodations, to take part in programs or activities in spite of their impairments.
When individuals are otherwise qualified to participate, recipients of federal funds must make reasonable accommodations that allow those individuals to take part in desired programs or activities, unless doing so would create undue hardships on the programs. Reasonable accommodations may require adaptations to allow access—such as constructing wheelchair ramps or making doors wider, providing sign language interpreters in class, or providing extra time to complete examinations, but program officials are not required to eliminate essential prerequisites to participation or to lower their standards. In the educational context, Section 504 applies to employees, students, and others, such as parents and the general public, who may access buildings on campuses of postsecondary institutions or participate in programs that the institutions offer.
In order to succeed in discrimination claims under Section 504, employees with disabilities must prove that they were treated differently than other workers or that they were subjected to adverse employment actions because of their impairments. Employees with disabilities are unsuccessful in their discrimination claims if they cannot show that they have the skills to perform the jobs in question even when they are provided with reasonable accommodations or if their alleged disabilities are not covered by Section 504. For example, Maine’s highest court rejected the discrimination suit filed by an instructor who was dismissed for violating his college’s sexual harassment policy but claimed to have a sexual behavior disorder (Winston v. Maine Technical College System, 1993). The court was not convinced that a sexual behavior disorder was a covered disability. For the most part, courts do not uphold discrimination claims when employers can establish that they took adverse employment actions for nondiscriminatory reasons. Even so, the burden generally is on employers to show that they took the adverse actions for legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons.
Individuals with disabilities are considered to be otherwise qualified if they can perform all essential job requirements in spite of their impairments. Accordingly, individuals who cannot perform essential functions of their positions, such as showing up on time for teaching assignments, even with reasonable accommodations, are not otherwise qualified. For example, in the educational context, failure to meet prerequisite requirements for teaching positions would disqualify applicants even if their failures are allegedly due to their disabilities. A case from Virginia where a teacher who claimed to be learning disabled failed to pass the communications section of the National Teachers Examination after several tries is illustrative. Insofar as the plaintiff did not meet the requirements for certification, a basic condition of employment for a teacher, a federal trial court found that she was not otherwise qualified (Pandazides v. Virginia Board of Education, 1992). In its analysis, the court pointed out that the skills measured by the communications part of the examination were necessary for competent performance as a classroom teacher.
At the same time, Section 504 does not protect misconduct, even when it can be attributed to worker disabilities. In this respect courts have supported the discharges of employees who committed acts of egregious or criminal misconduct (Maddox v. University of Tennessee, 1995) or exhibited excessive absenteeism, because appropriate conduct and being present are essential functions of most positions (Linares v. City of White Plains, 1991).
Under Section 504, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations that afford otherwise qualified employees with disabilities the opportunities to work and compete with employees who do not have disabilities. The purpose of providing accommodations is to grant employees with disabilities opportunities to lead normal lives, not provide them with special advantages. Accommodations may include minor adjustments in the employee’s job responsibilities, alterations to their schedules, or changes in their physical work environment. On the other hand, employers are not required to supply accommodation if doing so would place undue burdens on the employers. However, it is the responsibility of employers to prove that requested accommodations would create an undue financial or administrative burden.
At the same time, employers are not required to make accommodations that would fundamentally alter the nature of their programs or the work duties of employees. Even so, employers could be required to reassign employees with disabilities to other vacant positions that involve tasks that they are able to carry out (Ransom v. State of Arizona Board of Regents, 1997). Still, employers need not make reassignments if no other positions are available for which employees with disabilities are qualified. Further, employers are under no obligation to create new positions or to accommodate employees with disabilities by eliminating essential aspects of their positions.
Otherwise qualified students with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations that will allow them to access the programs and services available in institutions of higher education. In this respect, accommodations may need to be made in how courses of study are presented, and alterations may be necessary to allow physical access to buildings. As is the situation with providing accommodations to employees, the purpose of providing accommodations for students is to allow them to compete on an equal footing with their peers who do not have disabilities.
Institutions of higher education are not required to lower their admissions standards to accept students with disabilities. In one case, the federal trial court in Maine sustained the action of university officials who denied a transfer admission to a student with a learning disability, because he did not meet the institution’s minimum grade point average requirements (Halasz v. University of New England, 1993).
Many students with disabilities have filed suits after they were dismissed from postsecondary schools for a variety of reasons, such as misconduct or failing to meet academic standards. For the most part, students have been unsuccessful where college and university officials could demonstrate the existence of legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for dismissing students. By way of illustration, the Fourth Circuit upheld the dismissal of a premedical university student who failed to maintain a minimum grade point average even though he had received accommodations for his disability (Betts v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 2005). Similarly, the Eighth Circuit was convinced that university officials had a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for barring a student with disabilities who threatened a faculty member’s life (Mershon v. St. Louis University, 2006).
Students with disabilities frequently request testing accommodations, such as having extra time to complete examinations or being provided with quiet spaces in which to take the tests. The purpose of testing accommodations is to allow students with disabilities to be tested effectively on their knowledge. In order to be granted accommodations, students first must establish that they have disabilities and consequently need accommodations. Students may also be required to show that the requested accommodations are actually necessary because of their disabilities.
Allan G. Osborne, Jr.
Russo, C. J., & Osborne, A. G. (2009). Section 504 and the ADA. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq.
Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-325, 122 Stat. 3553 (2008).
Betts v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 145 Fed. App’x 7 (4th Cir. 2005).
Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1983).
Halasz v. University of New England, 816 F. Supp. 37 (D. Me. 1993).
Linares v. City of White Plains, 773 F. Supp. 559 (S.D.N.Y. 1991).
Maddox v. University of Tennessee, 62 F.3d 843 (6th Cir. 1995).
Mershon v. St. Louis University, 442 F.3d 1069 (8th Cir. 2006).
Pandazides v. Virginia Board of Education, 804 F. Supp. 794 (E.D. Va. 1992), reversed on other grounds, 13 F.3d 823 (4th Cir. 1994).
Ransom v. State of Arizona Board of Regents, 983 F. Supp. 895 (D. Ariz. 1997).
Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (1973).
School Board of Nassau County v. Arline, 480 U.S. 273 (1987).
Southeastern Community College v. Davis, 442 U.S. 397 (1979).
Winston v. Maine Technical College System, 631 A.2d 70 (Me. 1993).