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Combating Disability Discrimination in Higher Education

Disability EqualityLori was a straight A student at high school but after finishing, instead of making applications to attend university, she discovered that she was pregnant. The teen, who also had a disability, took almost two years out to have her child and spend those first months with her daughter. Then she had to decide what she wanted to do with her future. 

She decided that she would like to work with children in a daycare center. She enjoyed motherhood, loved children and could take her own baby to work with her.

Denied Access to Education Due to Disability 

She applied to a local college to complete a course in childcare and development and was accepted for an interview. When she arrived at the interview, the staff member noticed her disability and refused to enroll her on the course.

There was no point, he said, because the course wasn't just theory with books, it also involved the practical application of working in a daycare center for two days a week and as Lori was disabled, that wasn't suitable for her as she would have to care for babies and young children and with her disability, that wouldn't be advisable. 

Lori pointed out that she was a mother and she cared for her own year old baby every day on her own and the baby was thriving and beautiful.  Despite the obvious evidence of her competence and her above average grades, she was denied access to the course because of her disability. Being just 19 years old, she didn't like to argue and she didn't know her rights. 

She gave up on the idea of being a childcare provider and instead took a minimum wage evening job answering the telephone at an office.  Fast forward a few years and she now runs her own business from home, although happy, the experience has left a bitter taste in her mouth.

What happened to Lori was disability discrimination because she was refused access to further education and the career of her choice because of prejudisms about her physical appearance (her disability) and presumptions about her ability to care for children.  In many cases such treatment is illegal and there are actions that can be taken to enforce a person's rights.

Laws That Protect Against Disability Discrimination 

The Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990 (amended 2008) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, section 504 prohibits discrimination in higher educational establishments such as university or college.  These two pieces of legislation were put in place to make sure all students or potential students were offered equal opportunities in education and employment.

The ADA covers all state operated colleges, universities, government run buildings and public services and makes it illegal for any of them to treat someone differently on the basis of their disability.  This includes professional and vocational placements, trades and technical schools.

Of course, the disabled applicant must be able to do the job or course that he or she has applied for, like any applicant.  If he is under-qualified or his disability makes it impossible for him to complete the required tasks even with modifications, then the organization are not required to hire him and this is not considered discrimination.

Private Schools Must Still Comply With Anti-Discrimination Laws 

There are a few exceptions to this.  ADA and rehabilitation act laws don't cover private colleges and universities and organizations that are managed by religious groups but they may still be compelled to comply because places of public accommodation must be available to everyone equally.  If a religiously run college or group receives any government funding at all, they are required to act within the law or not only are they open to lawsuit but they could also have their funding removed.

Right to Alternative Accommodations 

A disabled student is allowed by law to receive 'reasonable accommodations' - that is, if they are capable of doing the course or vocational job with modifications, then these should be provided to give him the opportunity. 

Examples of these accommodations include a wheelchair access restroom, wheelchair ramps, lumbar-supportive chairs,  interpreters for deaf students and in the case of learning disabled students, extra time given for lectures or marking allowances for spelling errors.

Taking Action 

If you have been denied entry to a college course because you are disabled or you have experienced any other form of disability discrimination and you meet the definition of 'disabled'(your impairment significantly affects your daily activities and you have had the impairment for more than six months) you could make a formal complaint to the U.S Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) by filing one with them via the internet online complaints form.

You should make sure you include a detailed account of the discriminatory act that you are complaining about, the names of the organization or people that have discriminated against you, the type of discrimination and the dates that it occurred, as well as full and accurate contact information for yourself.

If your complaint to OCR isn't resolved you could consult a disability discrimination lawyer. As the statute of limitations on ADA claims is only 180 days it would be in your interests to seek legal advice when you make your OCR complaint, or before so that legal redress is still available to you.

If you can't afford an attorney, some firms provide a no win, no fee arrangement to help you gain access to justice.


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