How College Disability Services Differ from K-12 Special Education Services

How College Disability Services Differ from K-12 Special Education Services

Students with disabilities are entitled to accommodations in school, whether it is K-12 (public) or post-secondary education. The nature and delivery of those services, however, differ greatly between K-12 and college.

Laws That Impact All Students:

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law governing special education service delivery for students aged 3-21 or until high school graduation. An educational team develops the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for each child to ensure that the student is successful in the K-12 system.

Section 504
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of their disability. Subpart D of the Act applies to K-12 schools and subpart E applies to post-secondary institutions. The K-12 educational team will develop a 504 plan when a student is in need of certain accommodations to either the physical space or the learning environment. If there is a need for special education, the student will be given an IEP. Subpart E of the Rehabilitation Act indicates that post-secondary students must be given the opportunity to compete with their non-disabled peers.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is a federal law designed to provide equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities and protects these individuals from discrimination.

In sum, the IDEA, §504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA are laws designed to ensure that students are successful in the K-12 system. The ADA and §504 of the Rehabilitation Act ensure equal access for college students.

Differing Responsibilities:

K-12: At the K-12 level, the school is responsible for identifying students with disabilities, testing and providing services.

College: Students must locate the office that provides services for students with disabilities, identify him or herself, request accommodations, and provide adequate documentation supporting the need for accommodation.

K-12: Students may be assigned time to attend a resource room where a teacher who is specifically trained in working with students with disabilities provides instruction.

College: The student must make his/her own appointments at a learning center where services are usually the same for all students.

K-12: Students may have a plan that requires follow-up by school staff to inform the parents of the student’s academic performance, completion of homework and testing.

College: A college may not, by law, contact the student’s parents regarding his/her academic performance unless the student gives the college permission to do so. Parents must ask the student directly or the student may give the college permission to release such information with written documentation.

K-12: It is the school’s responsibility to provide for and arrange a formal IEP or 504 plan for the student to receive accommodations.

College: The student must request his/her accommodations. For testing accommodations, the student must provide the appropriate office (e.g. Academic Support Center) with the dates and times of his/her exams. Colleges are not responsible for knowing a student’s schedule and providing accommodations without some form of instruction by the student.

Instruction and Tests
K-12: Teachers may change the curriculum or assignments as outlined in the IEP or 504 plan.

College: Colleges must provide qualified individuals with a disability equal access to their programs and activities. Access could include academic adjustments, auxiliary aids, more time on tests, and services that do not constitute an undue burden or fundamental alteration of the program or activity. Post-secondary institutions, however, do not need to provide academic adjustments that would fundamentally alter the educational standards of the coursework or change the course requirements.

In the K-12 setting, accommodations and services are created to maximize a student’s potential to ensure success. At the post-secondary level, accommodations are given to ensure equal access. In general, the burden of responsibility shifts from the school in the K-12 setting to the individual student in the college setting. College students must contact disability support services, prove eligibility for accommodations, and make their needs known. Accommodations do not apply retroactively and grades do not have to be changed for work completed before accommodation eligibility is established.

Elizabeth Rae-O’Donnell is an attorney in our Livonia office where she concentrates her practice on education law, municipal law and labor and employment law. She may be reached at (734) 261-2400 or


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