Access to a high-quality education is critical for empowering all Americans to lead rich and productive lives. Every day, the U.S. Department of Education and my office, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), work to ensure that all students, including those with disabilities, have equal access to that important benefit. OCR does this by enforcing federal nondiscrimination laws, including two that specifically protect individuals from discrimination on the basis of disability: the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504).
OCR has issued new tools that educators, parents, students, and others can use to help ensure that all elementary and secondary students with disabilities are provided an equal opportunity to participate in, and benefit from, a public education.
In two guidance documents, a Dear Colleague Letter and accompanying Questions and Answers document, OCR discusses the effects of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (Amendments Act) on public elementary and secondary education programs. The ADA and Section 504 define “disability” as (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; (2) a record of such an impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment. The Amendments Act, which became effective January 1, 2009, emphasizes that the definition should be interpreted to allow for broad coverage. Students who, in the past, may not have been determined to have a disability under the ADA and Section 504 may now in fact meet the definition of disability under these laws. These amendments allow educators to focus on whether a school district’s actions and obligations ensure equal education opportunities, rather than on the technical issue of whether a student has a disability.
The documents we released also provide additional guidance on the requirements of Section 504 and the ADA in elementary and secondary schools. They reiterate the legal obligation of school districts to evaluate students for disability, provide a free appropriate public education to students with disabilities, and provide procedural safeguards for identification, evaluation, and educational placement. And they remind school districts that even if it is determined that a student does not need special education or related services, they must still consider whether the student is entitled to a reasonable modification of policies, practices, or procedures.
As Education Secretary Duncan said in support of President Obama's proclamation of October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month, “with a high-quality education, children with disabilities will be self-sufficient and will be able to work and live independently.” We at OCR are passionate about making sure that students with disabilities receive that high-quality education so that they may achieve their dreams and make positive and lasting contributions to our communities.
Russlynn Ali is the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the Department of Education