Disability and Law

What does the law require?

By law, a student who meets a college or university's essential admissions requirements cannot be denied admission on the basis of disability. Admissions criteria are the same for students with and without disabilities.

Federal laws protect the rights of all students to an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from all school programs and activities, including academic instruction, research, occupational training, housing, health insurance, counseling, financial aid, physical education, athletics, recreation, campus events, transportation and campus-based employment.

Students must be able to meet the essential academic standards of the school if they are provided reasonable accommodations. Knowledge and application of disability law ensures students' access to the curriculum as well as maintaining the university's academic integrity and standards.

What laws protect against discrimination based on disability status?

"We know that equality of individual ability has never existed and never will, but we do insist that equality of opportunity still must be sought."

- Franklin D. Roosevelt

Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504—First federal law to offer protection against discrimination based on disability.

“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 705(20) of this title, 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 or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service.”

Section 508, as amended—Technology Access

  • All electronic and information technology must be accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Students with disabilities must be able to access computer hardware and software, web pages and the Internet, CD/DVDs, video/audio teleconferencing, etc.
  • Note: Section 508 traditionally only applies to Federal agencies or departments, but may apply to specific grants through the terms and conditions of those grants or the laws that provide for such grants.  For Illinois institutions, please see the subsequent information on the Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act.

Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (2008)

  • Prohibits discrimination against individuals with a disability.
  • Applies to everyone: faculty, staff, employees, student employees, students and applicants.
  • Requires reasonable accommodations be provided to ensure access to classes, events, and related curricular activities.
  • Note: The ADA-AA does not require NIU, or any university, to fundamentally alter essential academic requirements or lower academic standards.

Under Title II of the ADA, however, public colleges and universities are required to provide auxiliary aids and services to qualified students with disabilities. To comply with this mandate, NIU must provide alternative methods of communication and/or alternative methods of meeting course requirements to students with documented disabilities.

Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act (2008)

  • All information technology developed, purchased, or provided by the State of Illinois be accessible to individuals with disabilities.
  • Information technology includes Internet and intranet systems, software applications, operating systems, video and multimedia, telecommunications and computers.
  • Examples of education-related technology
  • Accessible websites
  • Captioned videos
  • E-texts and PDFs
  • Podcasting
  • Learning management systems (e.g., Blackboard)
  • myNIU
  • Presentation software (e.g., PowerPoint)

How do I know who qualifies as "disabled?"

A student with a disability, as defined by the ADA, has either a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity such as hearing, seeing, speaking, learning, walking, breathing or performing manual tasks. Every student must also be able to perform the essential functions of the course with or without reasonable accommodations.

A disability alone does not qualify a student for an academic accommodation. The student must demonstrate to the Disability Resource Center (DRC) that the disability impacts the student's ability to access and participate in the curriculum.

To receive approved accommodations, students must disclose and may need to document their disability with a DRC staff member to receive approved accommodations. Documentation requirements vary based on the type of disability.

Students must document their disabilities that are not readily apparent. If documentation is needed, the student is responsible for providing it. Documentation typically includes the following information:

  • A diagnosis, made by an appropriate, qualified professional;
  • The history of impact of disability; and
  • Information that details and supports how the disability impacts one or more daily life activities for the student, including learning.

Based on the student's interview and disability documentation, the DRC staff member, in collaboration with the student, determines the most effective and timely accommodation(s). An interactive process between the institution and the student must occur as consideration of reasonable accommodations are considered by the university. After determining appropriate accommodations the DRC gives the student a "Letter of Accommodations"

The majority of NIU students who are disabled have hidden or "invisible" disabilities. Depending on the circumstances, these may include, but are not limited to, mental illness, autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities, traumatic brain injuries and chronic illness, e.g., Crohns Disease. These students do not look any different than their classmates who do not have disabilities. Despite being invisible, these types of disabilities impact students' ability to learn and perform.

To maintain consistency and fairness, only students who have gone through the DRC are eligible for approved disability-related accommodations.

Do accommodations limit academic freedom and classroom integrity?

Academic accommodations should not compromise essential elements of academic courses. Instead, they are intended to provide equal access to the curricula and full opportunity for participation by students who have disabilities. Students with disabilities should be held to the same academic standards as their classmates. Accommodations are designed to promote access; however, they do not promise success.

"Accommodations are regulated by the Disability Resource Center. If one of your students has been approved for accommodations by the DRC, you must comply with them, whether or not you agree with them. This is not optional and it is not an infringement on your academic freedom. It's the law. Further, common decency and the law, FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), both require that you protect a student's confidentiality regarding these accommodations, meaning that you may not disclose them or discuss them in public (e.g., not in class, in front of other students or faculty, in the hallway, etc.)."

Professor Alan Rosenbaum
President of the Faculty Senate and Executive Secretary of the University Council
Faculty Matters—May 2012

Can I talk to students about their disabilities?

Yes and no. Students' disability information is confidential. The student's right to privacy is protected by law. It is their choice to disclose their disabilities. Disclosure is necessary only when requesting an accommodation with the DRC.

Students will notify faculty about approved accommodations by discussing the accommodations listed on their letter. Students are not required to show individual faculty members their disability or other medical documentation. In fact, many prefer to keep the specific nature of their disability private.

As a general suggestion, follow the student's lead. Some may openly discuss their disability during class while others prefer confidentiality. It is always the student's choice to decide how much information to share publicly. Students are, however, encouraged to discuss the educational impact of their disability with their instructors. Anything beyond that is the student's decision to share. Therefore, it is imperative to also understand that students have a civil right to expect that university officials, faculty and staff will not publicly identify them as receiving disability-related support services. It means that you cannot ask students the nature of their disabilities. If faculty received a DRC created letter of accommodation the identified student has already been affirmed as a student with a disability through the DRC. The students' documentation is considered confidential information. It is protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and its regulations from disclosure to third parties and those University employees who do not need to know such information about the student in order to do their respective jobs.

It also means that you cannot publicly question the student's right to an accommodation. As required by federal law, faculty are expected to provide approved requested accommodations. If you have questions and/or disagreements about the accommodation request(s) please contact both the student and his or her DRC staff member privately.

In the classroom, do not discuss, treat differently, or otherwise acknowledge that a student has a disability without prior consent. Disclosing a student's disability status may create a hostile classroom environment because it is uncivil and often stigmatizing. In most cases, it is also illegal. If the instructor knows about the student's disability via DRC, that information is protected from public disclosure under FERPA regulations.

Do accommodations need to be applied retroactively?

That decision is within the instructor's discretion. NIU encourages students to contact DRC regarding accommodations prior to the start of the semester. However, students may request accommodations through DRC at any point in the semester. Some students may prefer not to disclose their disabilities unless necessary. If they do poorly on the first exam, for example, they may be inclined to seek assistance through DRC. Any approved accommodations a student receives at that point are not required to be retroactively applied. Students may ask, for example, to use their accommodations and re-take an exam given earlier in the semester; however, instructors are not obligated to agree to do so.


  • The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 were the first laws to promise educational access for academically qualified students who have disabilities.
  • Disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.
  • Accommodations provide access and opportunity for full participation. They do not, and should not, compromise classroom standards or integrity.
  • A student's disability information is confidential. Documentation, when needed, is shared with the Disability Resource Center, not with individual faculty members.
  • Classroom disclosure of a student's disability status (without the student's prior consent) is potentially illegal and likely offensive.
  • An "accessibility statement" placed in course syllabi helps meet NIU"s obligation to inform as well as create a more welcoming atmosphere for students with disabilities. (A copy of the current syllabus accommodation statement is provided in the following section.)


True or false: Academically qualified students who have disabilities have a federally protected right to attend NIU.


True or false: If I disagree with a student's approved accommodation, I can refuse to provide it.


True or false: A student's disability information is considered confidential.


True or false: I have a right to request a student's disability documentation.