Thursday, February 2, 2012

Office of Civil Rights Focuses Public Schools’ Attention on Students’ Rights Under the Americans With Disabilities Act and Section 504

On January 19, 2012, in a letter to public schools, the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) announced that it is stepping up its efforts to ensure that public schools are complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

On behalf of the USDOE, Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OCR) wrote that although the 2008 amendments to the ADA took effect three years ago, the OCR has become aware that public schools need guidance in regard to their related responsibilities. She stated that the OCR will be working to eliminate disability discrimination in public elementary and secondary schools by investigating complaints, conducting compliance reviews, issuing policy guidance, providing technical assistance, and working closely with the Department of Justice. For additional information, she referred schools to the USDOE’s publication titled “Questions and Answers on the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 for Students with Disabilities Attending Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.” That publication addresses the broadened definition of disability and the changes made by the 2008 amendments, explains how the amendments affect Section 504, and explains the obligations of school districts under Section 504 and the AEA.

The 2008 amendments broadened the definition of disability that schools must honor and asked districts to simplify the special education evaluation process. Specifically, they guaranteed that students may qualify for disability services even if they have a condition that affects them intermittently. In addition, they make it clear that a student may be eligible for special education services even if they are already performing well in school so long as they have an impairment that “substantially limits a major life activity,” according to documentation included in the Education Department correspondence. In effect, the amendments broaden the scope of students who school districts are required to evaluate for special education services. Additionally, the amendments state that the ameliorating effects of mitigating measures (other than ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses) may not be considered in determining whether an individual has a disability; expands the scope of “major life activities” by providing nonexhaustive lists of general activities and major bodily functions, clarifies that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active; and clarifies how the ADA applies to individuals who are “regarded as” having a disability.

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