Disability Bill Divides Higher Ed Groups

Some groups fear ADA bill will require institutions to expand services.

A bill to clarify the 18-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act — a landmark law to prevent discrimination against the disabled — is generating a mixture of praise and concern among higher education groups.

The ADA Amendments Act cleared the House of Representatives in late June by an overwhelming 402-17 vote, and a Senate vote is next. Within higher education, the measure has strong support from advocates for the disabled, though some leading higher education associations object to several of the bill’s provisions.

Two sections of the legislation “will have unintended and negative consequences for our members in their role as academic institutions,” says Dr. Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

One provision would add “thinking” and “concentrating” to the list of major life activities for which students with difficulties may request accommodations. Hartle says the change could allow students to claim limits on their ability that would be difficult to verify.

“The failure to achieve at a high academic level, often due to difficulties in thinking or concentrating, should not become the basis for a claim of disability in the higher education context,” Hartle says.

Another concern is that colleges would have less flexibility to consider other measures, such as a study skills course or even a change in student behavior toward school, in determining whether a student needs formal accommodations.

“The fact that a student has achieved academic success by studying harder, using mnemonic devices to assist in learning or memory, or adopting other studying techniques should not be disregarded in determining whether a student has a learning disability,” he stated in a letter to congressional leaders.

Other groups signing on to ACE’s position include the American Association of Community Colleges, the Association of American Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. But an expert in disability issues in higher education says the legislation will bring few far-reaching changes for colleges and universities.

“We’re going to have to sit down and review some of our policies,” says L. Scott Lissner, ADA coordinator at The Ohio State University and a board member of the North Carolinabased Association on Higher Education and Disability. “But there should not be a huge increase in the number of student requests.”

The chief aim of the act is to restore rights, primarily in the workplace, that have eroded in court cases since the ADA’s enactment. “It will widen who is covered by the act,” Lissner tells Diverse, in all settings, including higher education.

But the chief intent of the bill is that it will help combat discrimination, not guarantee that students or employees have certain accommodations.

“The amendments do not change our ability to say ‘no’ to an accommodation,” he says. Lissner cited the example of a student with attention deficit disorder who enrolls in an emergency medicine program at a college. The student may get more time to finish a pen-and-paper test in a classroom but likely would not get extra time to make decisions during a simulated field exercise.

“Accommodation would not become an entitlement,” he says.

Lissner says ACE and the three other associations are combining the issues of eligibility and accommodations. “In the field, these are two very different decisions,” he says. “Accommodation decisions are made on a case-bycase basis, within context. We get a lot of requests and we turn some of them down.”

Lissner says the bill, if enacted, may also help minority and low-income students, who often are underrepresented among the disabled in higher education.

Among low-income students in particular, many have not been able to afford the $1,000- $1,200 costs of private testing to determine the presence of a learning disability.

These students “don’t always have the high standard of documentation to be identified as disabled,” he says.

The ultimate goal of the bill, sponsors say, is to restore and clarify ADA’s original intent. “

The courts have consistently chipped away at Congress’s clear intent, and I know what that intent was, because I was there when we drafted the ADA,” says Rep. Steny Hoyer, DMd., the bill’s chief sponsor and House majority leader.

There is no timetable yet for the bill’s consideration in the Senate.

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