In Southeastern Community College v. Davis (1979), the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) for the first time. Section 504 prohibits recipients of federal funds from discriminating against individuals with disabilities on the basis of their disabilities. The statute further requires federally funded programs to provide reasonable accommodations to otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities so that they can participate in these programs. In Davis, the Court defined the term otherwise qualified as it is used in Section 504. Under the Court’s definition, institutions of higher education can consider the effects of individuals’ disabilities in evaluating whether they are otherwise qualified. Further, the Court indicated that Section 504’s mandate to provide reasonable accommodations does not require institutional officials to make substantial changes to the fundamental natures of their programs in order to provide individuals with accommodations. In light of the impact that Davis had on the development of the law with regard to Section 504 as it applies to colleges and universities as well as other educational institutions, this entry examines the case in detail.
Facts of the Case
Davis involved an individual with a history of hearing problems and dependence on a hearing aid who applied to the nursing program of a community college. When the student filed her application, she was advised to consult an audiologist. Following an examination, the audiologist made a change in her hearing aid but reported that she would still need to rely on lip reading for effective communication. College officials consulted with the executive director of the state’s nursing board, who advised that the applicant not be admitted to the program, because her hearing disability would have made it unsafe for her to participate in clinical training or practice as a nurse. Consequently, the applicant was denied admission into the program.
The applicant unsuccessfully filed suit in a federal court in North Carolina, alleging that the denial of admission violated Section 504 and the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court ruled that because the applicant was not otherwise qualified under Section 504, she was not protected against discrimination. In its analysis, the court interpreted the term otherwise qualified to mean that an individual is able to function sufficiently in a position in spite of a disability. Insofar as the applicant’s disability prevented her from functioning sufficiently in the nursing program, the court agreed that the decision denying her admission was not discriminatory. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed in finding that the trial court misinterpreted Section 504. The panel explained that the trial court erred in taking the applicant’s disability into account when it evaluated whether she was otherwise qualified. Moreover, the court indicated that Section 504 required affirmative conduct on the part of officials at educational institutions to modify their programs to accommodate individuals with disabilities even when such modifications are expensive.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
On further review, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Powell, reversed the Fourth Circuit order and, in essence, confirmed the trial court’s definition of otherwise qualified. According to the Court, the language of Section 504 does not compel officials at educational institutions to disregard disabilities or make substantial modifications to their programs in order to allow individuals with disabilities to participate. Rather, the Court wrote, Section 504 requires only that otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities not be excluded from participation in federally funded programs solely because of their disabilities. To the Court, an otherwise qualified individual with a disability was one who was able to meet all of a program’s requirements in spite of the disability.
Regarding the circumstances in the case before it, the Supreme Court pointed out that it was not open to dispute that the ability to understand speech without reliance on lip reading was necessary for patient safety during the clinical phase of the college’s nursing program. This ability, in the Court’s judgment, was also required for many of the tasks that registered nurses perform in their daily activities. As the Court viewed it, the fundamental alterations to the program that would have been necessary to allow the applicant to participate were much more than Section 504 required as reasonable accommodations. To this end, the Court refused to interpret Section 504 as imposing a requirement on educational institutions to lower or substantially modify their standards to accommodate individuals with disabilities.
Davis is significant not only for its definition of otherwise qualified but also because it helped to define the parameters of Section 504’s mandate to provide reasonable accommodations. Due to the similarities between the statutes, because these guidelines additionally apply to the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as to Section 504, they should be of great interest to educators and students alike on campuses of institutions of higher learning as they seek to provide equal educational and work opportunities for students, faculty members, and staff with disabilities.
Allan G. Osborne, Jr.
See also Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act; U.S. Supreme Court Cases in Higher Education
Russo, C. J., & Osborne, A. G. (2009). Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act: Implications for educational leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq.
Rehabilitation Act, Section 504, 29 U.S.C. § 794.
Southeastern Community College v. Davis, 442 U.S. 397 (1979).