In 1975, public schools excluded more than 1 million children with disabilities from education. Another 4 million children with disabilities, while attending school, were not receiving the educational services they needed – either because their disabilities were undetected or because schools did not offer them. Virtually no preschoolers with disabilities received services. Today, almost 7 million children with disabilities receive educational and service-related access to education due to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
The ADA articulated more specific regulations and reinforced the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which states in Section 504 that, “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability…shall solely by reason of her or his disability be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Although the ADA doesn’t specifically address education, its provisions affect educational organizations regarding students with disabilities. To understand how one must first have a basic understanding of the three major titles of the ADA and their key concepts:
- Providing reasonable accommodations to employees and applicants with disabilities,
- Providing auxiliary aids and services necessary for effective communication and program access, and
- Providing reasonable modifications of policies, practices, and procedures.
Since most public schools receive federal funding, they already had to comply with the obligations of Section 504. The ADA broadened that legislation to include most entities, excluding churches and private clubs. Private schools not affiliated with a church were required to provide full inclusion.
Title II states that government entities (which include public schools) must provide program access in the most integrated setting unless separate programs are necessary to ensure equal benefits or services. Therefore, this clarifies that schools are required to: make structural improvements where needed; provide alternative and auxiliary aids for learning and communication; and offer students with disabilities the means to participate in extracurricular activities. In other words, every service, program, benefit, or activity offered by schools must ensure access to students with disabilities.
Section 504 and the ADA require that schools always place students with disabilities with their nondisabled peers in the general education setting and extracurricular activities. It would be inappropriate, for example, to send a student with a disability on a field trip on an accessible bus by themselves – all students should ride together.
The ADA has strengthened the quality of life, level of independence, and educational goals for many people with disabilities.