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Academic Adjustment Policy

Section 504 Regulation, at 104 C.F.R, 104.44(a), regarding academic adjustments, requires an institution to make modifications to its academic requirements as are necessary to ensure that such requirements do not discriminate against a qualified student/applicant with a disability.

As the leading agency on civil rights and nondiscrimination in education, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) will review an institution’s determination of whether a specific standard or requirement is an essential program requirement that cannot be modified. OCR cannot require an institution to waive or lessen essential requirements; however, OCR can require a modification of the requirement if the requested modification does not lower academic standards, fundamentally alter the nature of the program or impose an undue burden on the University, and if the modification meets the underlying reason for the requirement.

OCR will review whether the determination by an institution that a requirement is an essential requirement is educationally rationally justifiable. The requirement should be essential to the educational purpose or objective of a program or course.

The courts have indicated that the appropriate process that an institution should utilize in determining whether an academic requirement is an essential requirement should include several elements:

  • The decision is made by a group of people who are trained, knowledgeable and experienced in the area;
  • The decision makers consider a series of alternatives as essential requirements; and
  • The decision should be a careful, thoughtful and rational review of the academic program and its requirements.

The process followed by the institution should be such that the determination of whether a requirement is essential and whether the requirement can be modified are rationally justified. The institution should carefully consider what elements constitute the core essential requirements for a program and these should be applied in a consistent manner.

The decision should be documented, and should include an explanation of the purpose or objectives of the academic program and how the essential requirement is necessary to achieve these objectives. It is important that this be documented prior to a challenge.

An institution is not required to consider individuals with disabilities when making the original determination of what constitutes an essential requirement. After properly developing and documenting essential requirements, an institution does not have to reconsider the underlying decision each time a request for an academic adjustment or modification is made.

There are typically two types of essential requirements. Certain requirements, for example, are related to an intended course of study to prepare an individual for a type of job or profession, such as doctor, lawyer, truck driver, teacher, nurse or physical therapist. These requirements are often based on the need for a student to master certain skills that are believed to be necessary to perform the duties of the job upon completion of the program. The second type of requirement, such as language and Math requirements, involve liberal arts curricula or requirements for what a “properly educated person should know."

Upon request by a student with a disability for a modification of a requirement, a college or university has an additional duty. The institution should determine if the requested changes would

  • Lower academic standards,
  • Fundamentally alter the nature of the program, or
  • Impose an undue burden on the institution.

In making the first part of the determination, courts have indicated that the institution’s process should include the elements identified above and the institution should also:

  • Carefully consider whether appropriate alternatives are available, including a consideration of feasibility and cost;
  • Determine if the essential requirement in question cannot be modified for a specific disabled student; and
  • Ensure that the determination is not based only on the past tradition of the institution, such as an assertion that we have “always” done this or required this, without a valid basis for the determination.

The requested modifications should not lower academic standards or require substantial alteration of the program. In addition, a requirement may be essential but the institution should consider if a disabled student could meet the required aspects of the requirement with modifications or academic adjustments. In other words, the focus should be on what skills need to be mastered rather than how they are mastered. Finally, the institution should be focused on the underlying reason for the requirement.

After a student has been admitted and has requested an academic adjustment, it is important that the institution’s decision involve a serious consideration of these issues. In making the determination it should not be assumed that a disabled person cannot meet essential requirements nor should the institution fail to investigate or consider whether appropriate modifications are possible or available. Unsupported conclusions, without investigation, that a required academic adjustment creates an administrative burden or hardship would be an insufficient justification for an institution’s decision. On the other hand, a request by a person with a disability for a waiver of an essential requirement or generally for a reduction in the amount of work necessary to complete a course or program would not be supported solely because the requestor has a disability. The institution should investigate whether a requested modification can be provided and if the provision of the alternative would meet the program requirements. 

The underlying purpose of Section 504 and Title II of the ADA is to allow persons with disabilities to endeavor to meet their full individual potential in taking advantage of educational opportunities. In implementing the regulations, colleges and universities should carefully and rationally determine the essential requirements or academic or technical standards for a program.