Disability Discrimination Fact Sheet: Colleges and Universities


Disability Discrimination Fact Sheet: Colleges and Universities

This fact sheet is about your rights as a student with a disability in higher education. If you are a student who also works at your school as an employee, you have additional rights under state and federal employment laws. You can learn more about your rights as a worker with disabilities from the Employment Resources section of our website.

Disclaimer: This publication is legal information only and is not legal advice about your individual situation. It is current as of the date posted. We try to update our materials regularly. However, laws are regularly changing. If you want to make sure the law has not changed, contact DRC or another legal office.

This fact sheet is about your rights as a student with a disability in higher education. If you are a student who also works at your school as an employee, you have additional rights under state and federal employment laws. You can learn more about your rights as a worker with disabilities from the Employment Resources section of our website.

I. Overview of disability rights in higher education

Under federal and state law, students with disabilities have the right to equal access to higher education as other students. “Equal access” means that a school cannot exclude you from its programs, services, or activities because of your disability. The right of equal access applies broadly. It includes not only access to a school’s academic programs, but also to the school’s recreational programs, student services, campus transportation, student housing, counseling, and other services. A school cannot segregate students with disabilities from other students. A school cannot prohibit students with disabilities from enrolling in the school. Similarly, a school cannot use admission criteria or other requirements that screen out students with disabilities. A school must allow you to bring your service animal with you to campus. For more information about service animals and emotional support animals, see our resources on Assistance Animals

The school must take steps to ensure that its program as a whole is accessible to people with disabilities. This includes making sure the school’s buildings and facilities comply with architectural accessibility requirements. There may be situations where it is not feasible to remove architectural barriers in a building. In that case, the school must modify its policies and practices to ensure that students with disabilities still have access to the school’s services, programs, and activities. For example, if a student who uses a wheelchair enrolls in a class that meets in an inaccessible building, the school must relocate the class to a building that is accessible to the student.

Schools must make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, and procedures when necessary to give a student with a disability equal access. A modification is a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule or practice. We discuss reasonable modifications in more detail in the next section of this fact sheet.  

There are several state and federal laws that protect the rights of students with disabilities in higher education. The specific laws that apply to your school depend on whether it is a private or public school and whether it accepts money from the government. It is very rare for a school to be exempt from all disability rights laws. The vast majority of schools must comply with at least one of the following anti-discrimination laws:

  1. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in many areas of life, including higher education. The ADA is made up of several different sections, which are called “titles.” Title II of the ADA applies to state and local government entities, which includes public colleges and universities. Title III of the ADA applies to “public accommodations.” Public accommodations are private entities that make their services available to the general public. Title III of the ADA says that “a nursery, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate private school, or other place of education” is a public accommodation.
  2. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a federal law that prohibits entities that receive federal funds from discriminating against people with disabilities. In other words, if a school gets money from the federal government (including federal student loan money), it cannot discriminate against people with disabilities.
  3. The Unruh Civil Rights Act is a California state law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination by a “business establishment.”
  4. The Disabled Persons Act is a California state law that protects the rights of people with disabilities to access public buildings, facilities, and other spaces.
  5. Government Code Section 11135 is a California state law that prohibits discrimination by businesses and government entities that receive state funds.

There are additional laws that may also apply to your school based on the type of school it is. For example, there are rules about discrimination that apply specifically to community colleges in California.

II. Reasonable Modifications

What is a reasonable modification?

One of the most common problems disabled students face is the need for modifications (also known as accommodations or academic adjustments). A modification is a change to a rule, policy, or practice that is necessary to give a person with a disability equal access to a service, program, or facility. Schools must provide reasonable modifications unless it would result in an undue financial and administrative burden on the school; fundamentally alter the service, program, or activity; or pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others. We discuss each of these exceptions in more detail below.

Under the law, it is the responsibility of the student to make the initial request for a modification. This is different from K-12 education. In primary and secondary school, there are laws that require the school to identify students with disabilities and proactively offer services and supports to help them succeed. But those laws do not apply to higher education. In college and university, a student who needs a modification must take the first step by making a request to the school. This is to protect the privacy and autonomy of the student. A college and university cannot force a student to disclose that they have a disability. They also cannot force a student to accept a modification they do not want or need.

Modifications should be tailored to the individual needs of the particular student requesting them. But, there are some common modifications that your school may already be familiar with and have readily available. Some common modifications are: extended time on tests and exams; extra time to complete assignments; in-class notetakers; textbooks and academic materials in alternative formats like Braille; excused absences for medical needs; and priority registration. Note that some of these “modifications” are actually auxiliary aids and services under the ADA, but schools often use the term “modification” to refer broadly to any disability-related service. For more information on your rights to auxiliary aids and services, see the U.S. Department of Justice’s technical assistance guidance, “ADA Requirements – Effective Communication,” January 31, 2014.

How to request a reasonable modification

Here are the steps you should follow to get a modification from your school:

Step 1: Make the request.

Your request for a modification must explain what you want from the school and why it is necessary for your disability. You do not have to give the school a diagnosis, but you do have to explain the connection (“the nexus”) between the modification you are requesting and your disability-related need. You can make your request verbally or in writing, but it is generally better to make the request in writing so that you have proof of your request.

Most schools have an office on campus that specializes in providing services to students with disabilities. These offices are usually called “Student Disability Services” or something similar. The office may ask you to complete an intake interview and use a specific form to request your modification. The law does not require you to enroll with the office or use any specific form, but the school may be able to process your request more efficiently if you use their requested procedures. If your school does not have an office for disability services, ask the Dean of Students or another administrator how to submit your request.

Step 2: Engage in the interactive process.

If the modification you requested is for something you obviously need and is easy to do, the school should grant your request right away. If not, you may need to engage in the interactive process with your school. The interactive process is a back-and-forth conversation between you and your school to find a modification that works for you and your school.

If your disability or your need for the modification is not known or obvious, the school may ask you to provide more information or documentation to support your request. The school should tell you what specific information they need. The school should not require a doctor’s letter or other documentation if your disability is known or obvious. The school also cannot require that you sign a general release giving them access to all of your medical records. The school’s request for more information or documentation must be reasonable and narrowly tailored to your request.

If you are requesting a modification similar to one you had in K-12, it may be helpful to share documentation about that modification with your school. But, be aware that the law does not require colleges and universities to automatically provide you with the same modifications you had in K-12. Because higher education is so different from primary and secondary school, colleges and universities are allowed to do their own evaluation of your modification request. Even if you had a modification in K-12, a college or university may still ask you to submit additional information to show that the modification is necessary.

After you give the school the information they need, the school must make a decision in a reasonable amount of time. There are only three reasons why a school can refuse to provide a reasonable modification:

  1. The modification would create an undue financial and administrative burden. A school can refuse to provide a modification if it would be too expensive or administratively complicated to do so. When deciding whether a modification is too expensive to provide, the school must consider all of the resources available to it. A school cannot set aside a small amount of money for modifications and refuse to use any of the other money available in its budget. If a school refuses to provide a modification because it would be an undue burden, it must offer an equally effective alternative modification that would meet your needs. 
  2. The modification would fundamentally alter the nature of the service, program, or activity. A school does not have to make modifications to its academic requirements if the requirements are essential to the program. Whether a particular requirement is essential to the program is fact-specific and depends on the situation. For example, if a school requires all students to take a laboratory science class as a general education requirement but its labs are not accessible to a student with a disability, the school should exempt the student from the requirement. But if the student is majoring in chemistry, lab classes may be an essential requirement for the degree program. But note that in this case, the school should be working to make all of its labs accessible to students with disabilities; otherwise, students with disabilities will have unequal access to the academic programs provided by the school. 
  3. The modification would create a direct threat to the health or safety of others. A school does not have to provide modifications that would harm others. The school’s determination of harm must be based on an individualized assessment of the student and the modification requested. The school cannot refuse to provide modifications based on stereotypes, assumptions, or generalizations about people with disabilities. Before a school denies a modification request, it must determine if the risk of harm can be reduced or eliminated with additional or alternative modifications or auxiliary aids/services. If the risk of harm can be reduced, the school must grant the modification. Note that the direct threat exception only applies to the health and safety of others, not the student requesting the modification. In other words, a school cannot refuse to provide a modification on the grounds that the modification would harm the disabled student making the request. The law protects the disabled student’s right to know what is best for them and to make their own decisions about their safety.

If your school denies your request for a modification, they should suggest an alternative modification that they would be willing to provide. If the alternative modification is equally effective for you, you can accept the modification and complete the interactive process. If the alternative modification is not effective, you should explain that to the school and suggest something else. If you and the school cannot reach an agreement about a modification, you may need to take steps to enforce your rights.

III. Enforcing your rights

If you and your school cannot reach an agreement about a modification, the school may deny your request. You can challenge the school’s denial using internal processes (like filing a grievance) or external processes like filing a complaint with a government agency or filing a lawsuit. The best process to use will depend on the circumstances and on your goals. We discuss the pros and cons of each process below.

These processes are not just for denials of modification requests; you can also use them to assert your rights if your school discriminated against you in other ways.

Internal Processes  

Your school should have policies and procedures in place for students to challenge actions by the school. These policies are usually in the student handbook or posted somewhere on the school’s website. If you can’t find the policy, ask an administrator for the information. 

If the school denied your request for a modification, you may have the right to request reconsideration. The school should tell you how to do that. If you feel the school discriminated against you (including by refusing to provide a reasonable modification), you can file a grievance. Each school’s grievance process is unique, but it usually involves submitting a written explanation about why you think the school discriminated against you. If you lose the grievance, there should be the right to an appeal. Your school’s grievance policy should explain the deadline and procedure to file a grievance, a timeline for the school to consider and decide on the grievance, and how to appeal if you disagree with the school’s decision on the grievance.

Using a school’s internal processes is usually faster and cheaper than filing a lawsuit. It can be a good process to use when you need a decision quickly and for relatively small disputes that an attorney may not be willing to file a lawsuit about. But on the other hand, there is no neutral decision-maker in an internal process. Your grievance will be decided by someone from the school, and that person may feel pressured to side with the school instead of with you.

External Processes

If the internal processes are unsuccessful, or if you do not want to use your school’s internal processes, you can file a complaint with a government agency or a lawsuit in court. There is no exhaustion requirement for discrimination complaints in higher education. That means you can go straight to filing a lawsuit in court if you want to; you do not have to file an internal grievance or file a complaint with a government agency first.

There are three different government agencies with whom you can file a complaint: 

  1. California Civil Rights Department (formerly the Department of Fair Housing and Employment): This agency will investigate complaints about discrimination that violates California law. You must file your complaint within 1 year of when the discrimination occurred. The agency also has a mediation service available to help you and your school reach an agreement without an investigation of the complaint. You can find more information about the agency’s complaint process on their website: https://calcivilrights.ca.gov/
  2. U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR): This agency investigates complaints filed against public schools and schools that receive federal funds. The deadline to file a complaint with OCR is 180 days from the date the discrimination occurred. If you decide to use your school’s internal grievance process first and that process takes longer than 180 days to complete, you can still file a complaint with OCR as long as you file it within 60 days of when your school’s internal process ended. OCR makes this exception to the 180-day rule because they want to encourage you to try and resolve disputes with your school’s internal processes. But, you do not have to use your school’s internal process first. You can file a complaint with OCR right away if you want to. You can find information about filing a complaint with OCR on their website: http://ed.gov/ocr
  3. U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ): The DOJ investigates complaints of discrimination filed against private schools that do not receive federal money. There is no deadline to file a complaint with the DOJ, but it is best to file your complaint sooner rather than later. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be to remember key facts and track down witnesses. Be aware that the DOJ process can be very slow because the agency receives a lot of complaints. It can sometimes take years for the DOJ to complete their investigation. You can find information about filing a DOJ complaint on their website: http://www.ada.gov/filing_complaint.htm.

If your complaint to a government entity is unsuccessful, you still have the right to file a lawsuit in state or federal court. But, be aware that the school can tell the court about your unsuccessful complaint to a government entity, which might sway the judge or jury against you. Remember that you do not have to file a complaint with a government entity if you don’t want to; you can go straight to filing a lawsuit if that is what you want to do.

The benefit of using external processes (complaints to a government agency and a lawsuit in court) over internal processes is that there is a neutral decisionmaker who is not affiliated with the school. But the downside of using external processes is that they usually take longer than the school’s internal processes.

Another factor to consider is cost. Filing a complaint with a government agency is free, but lawsuits can be very expensive. If you want to file a lawsuit, be sure to talk to your attorney early about how you and the attorney will handle expenses. Your attorney may agree to cover all the costs of litigation in exchange for a percentage of the money you get if you win the case. But if you lose, you may have to pay the winning party.

A final factor to consider is whether you want or need legal representation. The complaint process for government agencies is designed to be simple enough to do without an attorney. If you don’t have an attorney and don’t understand the process, the agency will explain to you what to do (but they cannot give you legal advice). With a lawsuit, you have the legal right to represent yourself, but doing that can be very difficult. Court proceedings are complicated and have a lot of rules. If you make a mistake, the judge is unlikely to help you and can even sanction (punish) you for breaking the rules. That could hurt your chances of winning the lawsuit.

IV. Best practices for protecting your rights

When done right, the process of requesting and receiving reasonable modifications from your school should be streamlined and collaborative. Unfortunately, many times the process can instead be stressful and adversarial. These tips can help you self-advocate more effectively and improve your chances of success if you need to file a grievance or complaint later on.

Do not assume that your school is knowledgeable about disabilities and accessibility. Many students assume that school administrators and staff are experts on the needs of students with disabilities. Unfortunately, that is usually not the case. Even staff who work in the disability services office may not be familiar with your particular disability or the accessibility barriers that exist at the school. Be prepared to explain basic information about your disability and what you need to succeed at school. 

Research possible modifications. It is not unusual for disabled students to find that the modifications that worked for them in K-12 do not work in higher education, or that they need modifications they didn’t need before. Higher education is a different environment from K-12, with different expectations and responsibilities. Do not assume that your school will tell you what modifications are available. If you are not sure what modifications to request, you may have to do some research. 

Your local independent living center, Regional Center, Department of Rehabilitation, and community-based organizations may be able to help. Another good resource is the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) at askjan.org. Although JAN focuses on employment and the workplace, their website has a lot of detailed information about accommodations based on a person’s disability. It can be a helpful place to get ideas about modifications you may not have thought of on your own. Lastly, consider joining a club or association for students with disabilities. These groups can provide essential support for students with disabilities to help them achieve their higher education goals.

After submitting a request for a reasonable modification, ask for a timeline of when you can expect to receive a decision from the school and follow-up. The law requires your school to respond to your request in a reasonable amount of time, but the law does not specify how much time is “reasonable” because it will depend on the specific situation. To make sure the school handles your request in a reasonable amount of time, ask when you can expect to get a response. If you do not get a response by that time, follow-up with the school and ask for an update. If you need a modification by a particular time, be sure to tell the school that when you make your initial request. That way, the school is on notice that your request is time-sensitive. If your school refuses to make a decision about your request after a long time, it could be interpreted as a constructive denial. 

Keep a record of your communications with the school. Hopefully, your school will provide you with the modifications you need to accomplish your educational goals. If they don’t, you may need to take legal action like filing a grievance or complaint. If that happens, you have a better chance of winning your case if you have documentation of what happened. Keep a copy of any forms, letters, emails, and other communications you give to the school. If you have a meeting with the school, you can ask for permission to record the conversation for your records. If you are not allowed to record the meeting, you can still take notes or ask to have a notetaker with you. If you have a disability that affects your memory, you can request permission to record the meeting or have a notetaker with you as a reasonable modification. You can also create a record of what happened at the meeting by sending a follow-up email that summarizes your understanding of the conversation. You should also create a timeline of events by keeping a journal or log of your communications with the school. 

Be prepared to self-advocate. Some schools do not train their staff on modifications and disability rights laws. As a result, staff will sometimes deny requests for reasonable modifications because they believe modifications give disabled students an unfair advantage. Others believe that if a student can’t succeed without modifications, then they don’t really deserve to be at the school. These are not lawful reasons to deny a request. In fact, these attitudes are exactly what the ADA aims to challenge. If you encounter these ableist beliefs, you may have to educate your school about their legal obligations to students with disabilities. 

Re-assess your modifications and access needs regularly. It can take time to figure out what modifications are effective in higher education, especially for students with new or changing disabilities. If you receive a modification and later realize it is not effective, you can ask for more modifications or for an adjustment to your modification. The school cannot impose a limit on the number of modifications you receive or prevent you from making requests in the future if your needs change.

Remember that you are not alone if you experience discrimination. Research shows 23% of disabled students have witnessed disability discrimination.1 Your school should not make you feel guilty or inferior for needing modifications and an accessible learning environment. You have the same rights to an education as everyone else. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need to achieve your higher education goals.

V. Resources


Sample Letter to Request a Reasonable Modification


Dear [College or University]:

I am a [student/applicant] and am writing to request reasonable modification for my disability. Because of my disability, I need: [Describe the modification you need and explain why it is necessary because of your disability.] These modifications are necessary for me to have equal access to [class, service, or program] as my nondisabled peers.

[Example: Because my disability prevents me from writing quickly and clearly, I need to type all notes on my laptop. I also need a notetaker to ensure I can catch all significant material from professors in my classes. Without this modification, I will not be able to capture information in my classes. I need these modifications to ensure I have good notes to study from and do well on exams.]

Attached is a letter from [my physician/psychiatrist/therapist/social worker/other third party] confirming my need for these modifications because of my disability.  

Please let me know when I can expect to receive a decision from you. [If you need the modifications by a certain date, explain that in the letter. Example: I need these modifications in place by the time classes begin on September 1.]


[Your name and contact information]


Sample Support Letter


Dear [College or University]:

I am [state your role and any applicable licensing or professional qualifications]. I am familiar with [person a disability] and their disability. Their disability [explain how their disability affects their needs or behavior]. 

Because of their disability, it is necessary for them to [state the modification]. Without the modification, they will not be able to [explain how the absence of the modification will negatively impact them].


[Name, title, and contact information]


  • 1. Wendy S. Harbour & Daniel Greenberg, “Campus Climate and Students with Disabilities,” NCCSD Research Brief 1(2) (2017): 6.