Reasonable Accommodation in Higher Education

Fact Sheet
Updated: 1 year ago

Higher Education Institutions

There are many laws that impact disability rights and accessibility standards. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to State and local government agencies, for example State Universities or Community Colleges. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, often called the Rehab Act, applies to entities which receive federal funding including federal student aid (FAFSA). This includes many two- and four-year colleges, for-profit colleges, and vocational training institutes like cosmetology or esthetics programs. Generally speaking, this means these schools must comply with the accessibility requirements of Title II of the ADA and the Rehab Act.


A higher education program can require universal admissions standards that are applied to all students. An individual with a disability may require a reasonable modification to application policies, practices, or procedures to ensure equal opportunity. An individual with a disability who meets the essential requirements for admission, may not be denied admission simply because they have a disability. In a rare case, if there are no reasonable accommodations or reasonable modifications which would allow a student to participate in the program without a fundamental alteration to the nature of the program, the student may be denied admission. This determination cannot be made based on stereotype and can only be made after an individualized assessment which includes looking at all possible reasonable accommodations or reasonable modifications. An individual with a disability is not guaranteed admission nor do they gain admissions priority over any other student.


Students with disabilities may require a reasonable modification to policies, practices, or procedures, reasonable accommodations, or provision of auxiliary aids and services to ensure equal opportunity for participation in the program. A school may require documentation of a disability prior to granting academic accommodations.


Some postsecondary schools provide student housing. These schools must provide comparable, convenient, and accessible housing to students with disabilities at the same cost. Student housing must comply with the Fair Housing Act, which among other things requires housing providers to permit reasonable accommodations or reasonable modifications if they are reasonable and necessary. In the context of housing, a reasonable accommodation is a change or exception to any rule, policy, procedure, or practice that is necessary for a person with a disability to have equal access to and full enjoyment of their home. A reasonable modification is a structural change made to existing premises occupied by a student with a disability to afford them full enjoyment of the premises. The common areas of student housing may be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design.

Differences between Higher Education and Elementary and Secondary Education

You may have received accommodations of a disability in elementary or secondary education. There are significant legal differences between those situations and accommodations in higher education.

Some of these differences are:

  • FAPE: Section 504 of the Rehab Act requires a school district to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to each child with a disability in the district’s jurisdiction. This is not required of post-secondary institutions. Instead, a post-secondary institution should have nondiscrimination policies and provide academic accommodations necessary to create equal access to the learning environment.
  • IEPs: A student in elementary or secondary school may have had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). This is not required of post-secondary institutions, because the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not apply to post-secondary institutions. An IEP can be useful evidence to show what types of academic accommodations are effective or necessary in higher education. According to the Federal Regulations on the ADA, a post-secondary institution should give “considerable weight to documentation of past modifications, accommodations, or auxiliary aids or services received in similar testing situations…”.
  • Evaluations: A post-secondary institution does not have to pay for an evaluation or assessment, unlike in elementary and secondary education when the school district has to pay for a special education assessment. A post-secondary institution may still require an updated evaluation at the expense of the student. Vocational Rehabilitation services may be able to assist students with the costs of getting an updated evaluation. 

Disability Discrimination Claims

If you feel that you have been discriminated against by a higher education institution, you may have a legal claim under the ADA and/or the Rehab Act. You have the right to file a claim with the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. The Office for Civil Rights investigates civil rights violations, including rights conferred by the ADA. You may also seek to file your claims in a court of law.

Additional Reading

For information on transitioning to postsecondary education by the Department of Education, read Students With Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities.