Key Legal Terms

Definitions will be given in a Question-Answer format to highlight their context dependence.

Q. Who qualifies as a person with a disability?

A. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 defines a "handicapped person" (person with a disability) as any person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities (e.g. walking, seeing, speaking, hearing, learning, or taking care of oneself.) Amendments to applicable laws and subsequent court decisions include behavioral and emotional disabilities under the broader term of mental impairment.

Q. Who is "an otherwise qualified person with a handicap"?

A. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act describes the "otherwise qualified handicapped person" in a university setting as any person who can, "with reasonable accommodations, meet the academic and technical standards requisite fo OF 1973r admission to or for participation in the institution's education program(s) or other activities."

Q. What is the difference between a reasonable and an unreasonable accommodation?

A. Federal laws define "unreasonable accommodations" as those that "fundamentally alter demonstrable academic or technical standards, substantially alter the nature of the benefit received from the course, program, or service, or pose a threat to self or others." They describe "reasonable accommodations", as modifications (e.g. alternative text and testing formats), auxiliary aids (e.g., sign interpreters, note takers), and substitutions for, or waivers of nonessential program elements to provide an otherwise qualified student with a disability equal access to knowledge and equal opportunity for program success.

Q. What is the difference between an essential and a nonessential requirement?

A. Section 504 and subsequent court cases define a Nonessential requirement as "a requirement that the institution or instructor cannot demonstrate is directly related to licensing requirements or directly related to essential knowledge or skills requisite to the specific program being pursued." (For example, a math course might be an essential requirement for pursuing a math or science major but a non-essential element for a student pursuing an English or History major. In sum, Federal laws recognize that maintenance of nondiscriminatory postsecondary educational institution requires there be a balance between the institution's right to maintain the academic standards necessary to carry out its mission and the rights of otherwise qualified students with disabilities to equal educational opportunity.

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