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Understand Legal Rights to Assist Students with Disabilities Entering College

August 31st, 2012

By Marion M. Walsh, Esq.

The beginning of college or other post-secondary school represents an exciting and emotional time for any parent, filled with great pride but also great concern.  For students with disabilities, the emotions are amplified, as many parents wonder if their children are sufficiently prepared and ready to succeed in college.

With careful attention to this transition, parents can act as partners with their children without usurping and controlling the process.   Parents should understand their legal rights and the rights of their children to help the process go smoothly.

Know Your Parental Rights to Receive Information
As a general rule, pursuant to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”), the right to access educational records transfers from parents to “eligible students” at age 18.  Many parents and even some colleges believe that this means that parents have no right to receive information or educational or records without student consent.  Many colleges, as a general practice, will not give parents information or educational records about their children.  However, if you claim your child as a dependent on your tax return, as most parents do for college students, FERPA allows your student’s college to release student records and information to you, whether or not your child consents. 34 CFR  §99(a)(8).

So if your student’s college resists providing information, let them know your child if financially dependent and, if necessary, you can provide your tax returns.

Encourage Your Child to Self-Advocate
Parents must help their children advocate for themselves. Ideally, students should have developed this skill in high school as part of transition services on their IEP, but many do not develop this skill by high school graduation. 

If your child has not developed the skill of self-advocacy, there is still time.  Your student must know his or her strengths and areas of need and understand his or her legal rights. You can ask your student’s advisor to work with your child to help him or her self-advocate and explain the importance.

How much should you advocate for your college student? Every student is different. For students with disabilities initially adjusting to college, some parental advocacy is appropriate to get students settled. But ultimately, your goal should be to ensure your child understands his or her legal rights and can advocate.

Understand Your College Student’s Rights
Although colleges and universities do not have to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and develop IEPs or provide a free and appropriate public education, just about every institution must comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.   This means that they must offer equal opportunity and access to opportunities for students with disabilities, and offer programs and services on the same basis as to non-disabled students. Specifically, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act provides, in relevant part that, individuals with disabilities shall not “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.” Students with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations and services, but your child will have to initiate the request for accommodations or services and provide documentation.

Your student’s college should have a Disabilities Service Office and publish important information on student rights. The Office for Civil Rights has put together guidance written specifically for college students with disabilities and has also published important information on auxiliary aids and services.

Parents of High School Seniors

In a future entry, we will provide guidance for parents of students with disabilities in high school, preparing for college, to ensure your child is receiving appropriate transition services.

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