Supported Education: Is it a Right?

Developed by the Axis Group I, LLC for The Family Café, Inc.

Supported Education involves the provision of ongoing supports to assist people with psychiatric disabilities to take advantage of skill, career, education and interpersonal development opportunities within a normalizing academic environment. The goals of Supported Education are to provide: access to a normalizing environment; access to the cultural and recreational resources available in educational settings: opportunities to strengthen basic competencies necessary to succeed in school and competitive employment; opportunities to explore individual interests relating to career development and vocational choice; and opportunities to earn degrees, certificates, or vocational training that will lead to employment and careers. Supported Education Programs are community partnerships made up of mental health consumers, family members, agencies, providers and colleges and universities with the intention of pooling resources to maximize educational opportunities and employment outcomes for persons with psychiatric disabilities. Supported Education programs modify existing educational environments by making them more receptive, supportive and encouraging to students with psychiatric disabilities.

Supported Education, Entitlement, and Accommodations

Supported Education is a concept grounded in the history of disability education and experience, and promotes the rights of every individual, regardless of disability, to access publicly funded education. By law, students with a verifiable disability must be given accommodations. An accommodation is a “modification to academic requirements as necessary to ensure that such requirements do not discriminate against students with disabilities, or have the effect of excluding students solely on the basis of the disability.” Through modifications in the typical secondary education system, consumers of mental health services have an increased chance to succeed. With Supported Education, these modifications are over and above existing educational

supports, services and accommodations for students with disabilities.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) represents a national commitment to provide free, appropriate public education for students with disabilities. IDEA requires public school districts to educate students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment. This is accomplishment when school personnel, in cooperation with parents, choose from a number of accommodations to best meet a student’s individual needs, The IDEA only applies to children with disabilities determined eligible for special education and related services from birth through their twenty first birthday, and its protections and services end when the child leaves secondary school-either through aging-out or graduating with a regular high school diploma. The IDEA and its Individualized Education Program (IEP) provisions do not apply to postsecondary schools.

Section 504 and Title II protect elementary, secondary and post-secondary students from discrimination. But, several of the requirements that apply through high school are different from the requirements that apply beyond high school. Section 504 requires a school district to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to each child with a disability in the district’s jurisdiction. Whatever the disability, a school district must identify an individual’s education needs and provide any regular or special education and related aids and services necessary to meet those needs as fully as it is meeting the needs of students without disabilities.

Post-secondary institutions are not required to provide a FAPE but are required to provide appropriate academic adjustments as necessary to ensure that they do not discriminate on the basis of disability.

Section 504 and the Americans with

Disabilities Act

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibit institutions receiving federal funds from discriminating based on disability, and are key to the success of students with special learning needs in post-secondary programs. These pieces of legislation define individuals considered to have a mental or physical disability and describe accommodations and modifications required by law. Case law over the years has also been instrumental in ensuring access and creating an environment geared toward success in higher education and in employment for individuals with disabilities, including those with mental health care needs. Practically every post-secondary program in the United States is subject to one or both of these laws, which have similar requirements. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), states that “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . 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.” The Section 504 regulation applies to all recipients of federal funding, including colleges, universities, and post-secondary vocational education and adult education programs. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits state and local governments from discriminating on the basis of disability. The Department enforces Title II in public colleges, universities, and graduate and professional schools.

Supports and Services

Public and private post-secondary programs are required to provide the necessary services and supports for students with disabilities to participate in activities, both academic and social. Services such as allowing students to take course exams in quiet environments may also be required, with certain technical stipulations, to the extent necessary for students with disabilities to participate in campus activities. The level and extent of services that must be provided depend on whether the campus is public or private. The Section 504 regulation contains requirements relating to a post-secondary school’s obligation to provide auxiliary aids or accommodations to qualified students who have disabilities. Post-secondary programs receiving federal funding are required to take such steps as necessary to ensure that no handicapped student is denied the benefits of, excluded from participation in, or otherwise subjected to discrimination under the education program or activity because of the absence of educational auxiliary aids for students with impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills. An accommodation is a change that helps a student overcome or work around the disability. Once a student has sufficiently documented that he or she has a qualifying disability, a college is responsible for providing reasonable accommodations or modifications that do not result in unfair advantage, require significant alteration to the program or activity, result in the lowering of academic or technical standards, or cause the college to incur undue financial hardship [Smith v. State University of New York, 1997]. Failure by these higher education schools to provide auxiliary aids to students with disabilities that results in a denial of a program benefit is discriminatory and prohibited by Section 504. The requirements regarding the provision of auxiliary aids and services in higher education institutions described in the Section 504 regulation are generally included in the general nondiscrimination provisions of the Title II regulation. It is, therefore, the post-secondary program’s responsibility to provide these auxiliary aids and services in a timely manner to ensure effective participation by students with disabilities. If a student is being evaluated to determine their eligibility under Section 504 or the ADA, the program must provide auxiliary aids in the interim. In elementary and secondary schools, teachers and school specialists may have arranged support services for students with disabilities. However, in post-secondary schools, the students themselves must identify the need for an auxiliary aid and give adequate notice of the need. The student’s notification should be provided to the appropriate representative of the college who, depending upon the nature and scope of the request, could be the school’s Section 504 or ADA coordinator, an appropriate dean, a faculty advisor, or a professor. Unlike elementary or secondary schools, colleges may ask the student, in response to a request for auxiliary aids, to provide supporting diagnostic test results and professional prescriptions for auxiliary aids. A college also may obtain its own professional determination of whether specific requested auxiliary aids are necessary. Personal services generally include personal aids or attendants that support students during their participation in post-secondary activities and programs. Once a student with a disability graduates from a high school program or its equivalent personal attendants are the responsibility of the student who has a disability.

Protecting the Rights of Post-secondary Students

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) enforces Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Title II). OCR enforces several Federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in programs or activities that receive Federal funds from the Department of Education. These laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin, sex, disability, and on the basis of age. These laws extend to all state education agencies, elementary and secondary school systems, colleges and universities, vocational schools, proprietary schools, state vocational rehabilitation agencies, libraries, and museums that receive U.S. Department of Education funds.

Protecting the Rights of Post-secondary Students

Although colleges and universities provide accommodations and academic counseling to all students, they usually don’t offer the kind of personal support most students with psychiatric disabilities need to meet the challenges of returning to school. The question becomes one of reasonable accommodations, and not all requests for accommodation or auxiliary aids have been found reasonable by the courts. Instead, requests are often sorted out on informal levels between students and the college or specific professors. Requests for a specific academic adjustment do not have to be honored and the program may offer that academic adjustment or an alternative one if the alternative would also be effective. Postsecondary programs may also conduct their own evaluation of disability and needs at its own expense.

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