Disability Disclosure in Postsecondary Education

Accommodations at the postsecondary level (after you exit high school) are provided only when a student discloses his or her disability and requests reasonable accommodations.

It is not essential to divulge specific personal information about your disability. What is most important and helpful is to provide information about:

  •  how your disability affects your capacity to learn and study effectively
  • the environment, supports, and services you’ll need in order to access, participate in, and excel in your area of study

YOU decide what and how much information is necessary to reveal in order to obtain the needed accommodations.  Keep the disclosure conversation focused on your abilities, not on your disability.

Who do I talk to?

Most universities, community colleges and vocational schools have a disability office or coordinator who provides support services to students with disabilities.   The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act both provide protections for students with disabilities at the postsecondary level.

When do I disclose?

If you expect to have accommodations in place at the beginning of the semester, then you will need to talk to the Disability Office either prior to enrollment, or at the time of enrollment.  If you decide to wait until classes begin, you may not immediately receive the needed accommodations.  YOU decide when and if you want to disclose.

Download this fact sheet >


Adapted from National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth. (2005).  The 411 on Disability Disclosure Workbook. Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership.


6 Options for Resolving an IEP Dispute

No matter how good your relationship with a school, there may come a time when you and the school disagree over what’s best for your child. Conflicts can arise over the amount or quality of services that the school is providing in your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). Sometimes the disagreement may be about your child’s placement.

The good news is that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives you several ways to resolve disputes. Here are six options for resolving an IEP dispute:

1. Informal Negotiation: Talking with the School during IEP Meetings

You’re part of the IEP team. In fact, you can call an IEP team meeting at any time. An IEP meeting brings together you, your child’s general and special education teachers and the school to discuss your child’s education.

Just calling this meeting is powerful way to jump-start a solution. Perhaps your child’s IEP requires an hour of speech therapy a week, but you find out that the school has skipped several weeks of therapy. You can call an IEP team meeting immediately to discuss how to fix this problem.

2. Mediation: A Voluntary Process with Third-Party Help

If the IEP process isn’t working, you can ask for mediation. This is a free, confidential and voluntary process where you sit down with the school and a neutral third party, called a mediator, to work out a solution.

The mediator doesn’t take sides or tell you what to do. Instead, the mediator tries to help you reach a solution with the school that works for everyone. You can ask for mediation at any time. The decisions agreed to in mediation are legally binding.

Learn more about mediation >>

3. Due Process Hearing: Starts with Formal Complaint, Ends with Decision

Due process is a formal way of resolving disputes under IDEA. You start this process by filing a due process complaint. The due process complaint is a written document that spells out your dispute with the school and must state a violation of IDEA. It might be in reference to your child’s eligibility for special education services, or it could be in reference to the types and quality of services received.

Due process is a serious and involved legal process. It’s a good idea to speak with a special education lawyer before you file a complaint.

Learn more about Due Process:

4. Civil Lawsuit: Going to Court After Due Process

If you don’t win the due process hearing, you have the option of filing a lawsuit in state or federal court within 90 days (the school can also file a lawsuit). This is one the most extreme legal options and requires a lawyer. You can only file a civil lawsuit after you’ve gone through due process.

5. State Complaint: Asking the State to Step In

In addition to the options above, you can also file a state complaint about a school’s violation of IDEA within one year. This is basically a letter to the state department of education asking for an investigation.

Organizations and groups of parents can file state complaints. For instance, you can get together with other parents and file a state complaint if you see a school issue that affects more than just your child. Once a complaint is filed, the state may investigate and decide if the school violated IDEA. States have their own rules on how these complaints are handled.

Learn more about State Complaints:

6. Office for Civil Rights Complaint: Going to the Feds

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act protects students with IEPs from discrimination. Section 504 gives you even more options for resolving disputes. The most important is a complaint to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education. An OCR complaint has to be filed within 180 days of the school’s violation. Just like with a state complaint, an OCR complaint may lead to an investigation of the school.


Who Won Endrew F?

I got an email from a reporter last week asking a fascinating question: did parents or school districts win in the Endrew F decision by the US Supreme Court? You can read the entire high court decision here. Also our previous posts concerning the case are available here and here.

The reporter noted that it seems that parent groups are hailing the decision as a victory for them while at the same time school district groups are saying that they are already providing educational benefit at the level required by this decision. You can see the apparent discrepancy in this story by PBS on whether the decision is a game-changer for special ed.

So who won…well the answer is not very clear. I’m going to give you my analysis, but I’d love to hear your opinion as well. Who won and why?

For the parties to the actual case, the matter was remanded to the Tenth Circuit. This means that there will be further court proceedings before we know who prevailed in this case.

For purposes of special education law, however, the answer is a little foggy. School districts clearly won to the extent that the Supremes did not overturn Rowley. In fact the decision does not even mention the battle between some benefit vs. meaningful benefit that the earlier pleadings and argument seemed to involve. So Rowley is still good law.

On the other hand, parents clearly won to the extent that the high court required more benefit than the more than trivial or de minimis standard used by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. To provide FAPE, a school district has to do better than that. The unanimous Supreme Court held that the standard is “markedly more demanding” than the standard used below.

However, school districts clearly won to the extent that the court rejected the potential maximizing standard that was previously rejected by Rowley. The Court refused to require an IEP that lead to self-sufficiency, academic success, and the ability to contribute to society. The Court rejected the argument that opportunity equal to that received by non-disabled students is necessary. In this regard, the Court mentioned that the Congress had amended IDEA a number of times since 1982 and yet never overruled Rowley so that it was good law still. Potential maximization arguments that had been rejected in Rowley continue to be rejected. So an IEP must be reasonable not ideal.

Nonetheless, parents clearly won to the extent that the court made FAPE turn on the individual circumstances of the child. The Court stated, “The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives…” Rather than develop a bright line rule, the Court adopted an individualized fact specific approach.

OK so everybody won. Or at least you can see why they all believe that they won.

The real answer to the question will turn on how hearing officers and courts apply the new standard to actual fact patterns.  The new standard requires that an IEP must be reasonable given the unique circumstances of the child with a disability. In other words, the IEP must be reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress in light of his own individual circumstances. Students fully integrated in general education classrooms will be expected to make passing grades and advance from grade to grade. Other special education students may not need to make grade level success to receive FAPE as the standard for them is somewhat lower. 

Hearing officers and courts will follow the Supreme Court’s instruction and apply the revised standard on a case by case basis. They will engage in a fact-specific analysis involving the unique circumstances of the child with a disability. To some extent, what is “reasonable” is in the eye of the beholder.

So how will hearing officers and courts apply the newly clarified FAPE standard? Stay tuned.


A Supreme Disappointment for Students with Disabilities

The Supreme Court held unanimously last week — in its most momentous ruling on special education in over three decades — that the standard for services owed to students with disabilities under federal law is higher than “merely more than de minimis.”

Lower courts had been divided, with some saying services must be “meaningful” or “significant,” and others saying “merely more than de minimis” — as in a step above trivial.

The Supreme Court decision to raise the bar was generally hailed as a victory for students with disabilities. But don’t believe it. Under the de minimis standard, there was almost nowhere to go but up, and the court went up only a very little. An 8-0 vote by a court that is usually sharply divided is a sign that the decision may lack clarity or bite.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the court, stated that the standard is whether the services are “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” That means more than de minimis, but how much more? The vague language was deliberate to allow, Chief Justice Roberts reasoned, “deference” to the expertise and judgment of school authorities.

But this reasoning is deeply flawed. The court does not understand the extent to which school systems nationwide fail to recognize that the great majority of students with disabilities are capable of achieving much higher levels of academic achievement than they do.

Low expectations are at the root of the failures of special education. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan concluded: “No belief is more damaging in education than the misperception that children with disabilities cannot really and shouldn’t be challenged to reach the same high standards as all children.”

Federal regulations specify that students who are not significantly cognitively disabled should receive services that enable them to meet state standards. This regulatory standard is based on research. The National Center on Educational Outcomes, the leading research organization on accountability for the achievement of students with disabilities has determined that “the vast majority of special education students (80-85 percent) can meet the same achievement standards as other students if they are given specially designed instruction, appropriate access, supports and accommodations as required [by federal law].”

Most educators don’t get it, and the Supreme Court didn’t either. The court decision did not preclude schools from providing services reasonably calculated to enable students to meet grade-level standards. But it simply left them too much room to continue their low expectations and lack of appropriate services.

It is now up to parents and advocates to pressure school systems to raise their expertise and judgment about the potential of students in special education. The expertise must particularly zero in on how to better teach reading. About 90 percent of all students with disabilities who do not have severe cognitive limitations are found eligible for special education because of big deficiencies in reading.