A Primer on Disability Law

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A student at University of Oregon Law School has sued the school for failing to accommodate his disability. In related news, Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos seemed unaware in her confirmation hearing what federal disability requirements were for disabled students (although the context was primary school). Now seems like a good time to discuss the basics of disability law, primarily focusing on the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in the 1990’s. Its basic purpose was to protect those living with disabilities from various types of discrimination. It also required covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, as well as putting in place accessibility requirements on public accommodations.

Given that both the news story above discuss the type of accommodations required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is worthwhile to briefly delve into the topic in a little more detail. In the school context, students with disabilities must be given an equal opportunity to participate in courses, programs, and activities (including extracurricular activities). Such accommodations can be in the form of academic adjustments or modifications, such as extended time for test taking or completing course work, or auxiliary aids, such as qualified sign language interpreters and the like. These forms of access are in addition to the physical access also required by the law.

While the requirements obviously apply to public schools, private schools also fall within the law’s reach. Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, and private schools must eliminate unnecessary eligibility standards that deny access to individuals with disabilities. According to ada.gov, “Title III covers businesses and nonprofit service providers that are public accommodations, privately operated entities offering certain types of courses and examinations, privately operated transportation, and commercial facilities.” For the full citations, you can visit https://www.ada.gov/cguide.pdf. The guide goes on to define public accommodations as “private entities who own, lease, lease to, or operate facilities such as restaurants, retail stores, hotels, movie theaters, privates school” and the like.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is an important bulwark to protect against discrimination. It is an oft-litigated topic, and I would hope that any potential Education Secretary would have a clearer grasp on its reach and impact. But that’s just my opinion.

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