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Expert Q&A

Can a high school IEP be used to document the need for disability support services in college?

My son was diagnosed with Aspergers when he was three. He was served through special services in our county through elementary to high school. He has recently enrolled at our local university. I met with the person in charge of students with disabilities. She told me she would not accept his IEP from high school. She stated she needed a new psychological testing. What should I do?

Dear Melinda,

You are interested in whether a university in which your son is enrolled is obligated to accept prior evaluations and his high school IEP. The special education system, which is based on the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is only applicable to public elementary and high schools. It is not legally controlling with respect to the obligations of public or private colleges and universities. Rather, the obligations of colleges and universities with respect to students with disabilities are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The ADA applies to all colleges and universities, except those that are religiously controlled. Section 504 applies to all colleges and universities that receive federal funding, regardless of whether they are public, private or religiously affiliated. Students seeking accommodations in college based on their disability have the burden of identifying themselves to the school as having a disability, providing up-to-date and clinical documentation of the disability, as well as documentation of the impact of the disability on their performance and the need for reasonable accommodations to ameliorate the impact of the disability.

Public elementary and secondary schools are affirmatively responsible for identifying all children suspected of having disabilities, and, where indicated, conducting evaluations to determine if the child has a disability that meets the eligibility criteria for special education. Colleges and universities have no obligation to seek out or identify whether students have disabilities. The student must disclose the disability and provide documentation, as described above.

Colleges and universities may vary in their rules for how recent the clinical evaluations must be. The length of time since the student’s last clinical evaluation was conducted may also be viewed differently depending on the identified disability, as some courts have held that some disabilities may be more chronic and consistent than others. In addition to providing clinical documentation of disability, the need for reasonable accommodations must also be documented.

If a student has been eligible for special education services or had a Section 504 plan while in elementary or secondary education, this is important evidence of the history of disability and the need for accommodation, but does not automatically require the college or university to either accept that the student has a disability or to accept the accommodations that were previously provided. Even assuming the college agrees that the student has a disability that substantially limits a major life function, the ADA and Section 504 only require the provision of “reasonable accommodations.”

While the list of such accommodations is extensive, it is far more limited than the services required under the IDEA for students in elementary and secondary education. Further, the right to a particular accommodation may be individually evaluated by the college, which may decide the accommodation is not needed, is not reasonable, is unduly burdensome, or would fundamentally alter the nature of the school’s programs. Students interested in receiving accommodations should contact the college or university’s office of disability services.

Information on the right to accommodations in higher education can also be obtained from the website of the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and from Association on Higher Education and Disability and HEATH Resource Center.

Note from LD OnLine: For more information read The Documentation Disconnect for Students with Learning Disabilities: Improving Access to Postsecondary Disability Services, a paper by the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities.

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