IDEA, ADA, and Section 504

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IDEA, ADA, IEP'S, and Section 504 Plans: What Happens in College?

Many students and families find it difficult to understand how different disability laws affect the provision of services at college. Below are three very important laws to understand.


The IDEA stands for The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The IDEA is a federal law that governs early intervention, special education and related services for disabled schoolchildren ages 3-21 (or until high school graduation). The IDEA requires public schools to create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for each disabled child.  IEPs are developed by the educational team for the child and seek to tailor the child’s educational program to meet his or her individualized needs, which may include participation in a special education program. The IEP is designed to promote student success in the K-12 system.

Section 504

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a law that protects individuals from discrimination based on their disability in connection with any public or private program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. The Act is divided into seven Subparts. Subpart D applies to K-12 schools and Subpart E applies to postsecondary institutions. A 504 Plan is developed when a K-12 student needs certain accommodations and modifications to either the physical space in the school or the learning environment (but not a special education program, as that would be part of an IEP under the IDEA). Subpart E states that postsecondary students must be granted the opportunity to compete with their non-disabled peers.


The ADA stands for The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The ADA is a federal civil rights law designed to provide equal opportunity for qualified individuals with disabilities, including students. The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of a qualified disability and ensures that qualified disabled students can have equal access and opportunity for participation in the programs, services and activities offered by a recipient of federal financial assistance. The ADA was amended in 2008 by, among other things, expanding the definition of disability and what it means to be regarded as disabled under the statute.

Important Points

It is very important to understand that IEPs and 504 Plans may not suffice as adequate documentation to accompany a student to a postsecondary institution since both are required under sections of the laws that do not apply once the student attends college. Although students are covered under Section 504 once they get to college, it is a different Subpart, as discussed above. IEP’s and 504 Plans are sometimes helpful to colleges but are often insufficient as a sole form of documentation.

The key point to remember is that, generally, the purpose of the IDEA is to ensure that students are successful in the K-12 system whereas the ADA and Section 504 only ensure access, because success in college is up to the student.

Overall, the responsibilities of the student and of the school are very different at the post-secondary level. Here are some key points:


  • At the high school level, the school is responsible for identifying students with disabilities, testing those students, and providing services.
  • At the college level, the student must locate the office that provides services for students with disabilities, identify him- or herself to the office, request accommodations, and provide documentation to support the need for accommodations. Any student who needs additional or updated information to support accommodation requests, or who has never been identified before college, is responsible for paying for any testing.


  • At the high school level, part of a student’s plan may include mandated follow-up by school staff to inform parents of the student’s academic performance, completion of homework, etc.
  • A college may not, by law, contact parents about a student’s academic performance unless the student gives the college permission to do so. Parents wishing to know how their student is doing must ask the student directly or get the student to give permission to the college to release such information.

Accommodation Arrangements

  • At the high school level, a formal plan (IEP or 504 Plan) makes it the school’s responsibility to arrange for the student to receive accommodations.
  • At the post-secondary level, the student must, once approved, request his or her accommodations in each instance that they are needed. For example, the student must provide a purchased copy of a text in order to have it converted to an alternative format. For testing accommodations, the student must provide the appropriate office with the dates and times of his or her exams and may be required to have more participation in the arrangements for such accommodations. Colleges are not responsible for knowing a student’s schedule and arranging accommodations without some form of initiation from the student.

Objective of Accommodations

  • At the high school level, accommodations and services are usually designed to maximize a student's potential.
  • At the post-secondary level, accommodations are granted to create a “level playing field,” rather than to help a student reach his or her greatest potential. Often, the reason certain accommodation requests are rejected is that they go beyond the scope of this goal.

It is important to understand that services vary from college to college.  Students transferring from one post-secondary institution to another may experience differences in the level of service offered.  Any student with questions should contact Student Disability Services.

Terms and Definitions

A Disability

Federal law defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits or restricts the conditions, manner, or duration under which an average person in the general population can perform a major life activity, such as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, or taking care of oneself. An impairment or diagnosis, in and of itself, does not constitute a disability: it must "substantially limit" activities of daily living.

Disabilities do not necessarily impair the individual's performance but may require the individual to seek alternate methods of carrying out a given task. As a recipient of federal funding, the College of Western Idaho is required by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide effective auxiliary aids and services for qualified students with documented disabilities if such aids are needed to provide equitable access to the College's programs and services. This includes academic programs as well as extracurricular activities.

Auxiliary Aids and Services

Auxiliary Aids and Services are broad terms, including such considerations as but not limited to:

  • Note-takers
  • ASL interpretation
  • Speech to text interpretation
  • Use of a computer for in-class exams and in-class writing assignments
  • A reduced distraction environment, whenever possible, for in-class exams
  • Extra time for in-class examinations and in-class writing assignments
  • Alternative book and test formats

The following accommodations that are not considered reasonable:

  • If making the accommodation means making a substantial change in an essential nature of a program or element of the curriculum
  • If it poses an undue financial or administrative burden
  • If they create a direct threat to the health or safety of others

Auxiliary Aids and Services are tailored to an individual’s situation, taking into account the nature of their disability, their prior experience with specific academic adjustment or modification, and the context of the learning environment and course content.