Rights and Responsibilities in Higher Education

Kim Waegele © 1999  

Published by The Student Advocate and The Sixth Sense


Going to college is an exciting experience.  Despite the constant struggles with financial aid, roommates and cafeteria food, millions of college students learn valuable life experiences that will enrich their education.  However, students who are blind are often deprived of these enriching experiences due to access barriers that block the road to an equal education.    

            The American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) and The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) promote equality in the work place and a free and appropriate education through high school, but what is offered for college students who are blind?  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation act of 1973 is one civil rights law that has included this population into the college environment.

          According to Section 504, “No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States…shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any program or activity receiving financial assistance.”  Colleges receive federal aid, which is what qualifies them to fall under this law.    

Any person who is blind can attest to the lack of respect for civil rights legislation for people with disabilities and as you will read, laws can have vague language and are difficult to implement.  Therefore, it is up to the individual student to self-advocate for him or herself.  During an interview, Dr. Diane Bassett, professor of special education at the University of Northern Colorado, commented that “self determination and self advocacy skills” are the two key factors for any students’ success in higher education.    Although IDEA legally requires each student to begin a transition program at the age of fourteen, which may include college preparation, these plans will not do any good if students are not determined to succeed and also work on some of their own adaptations independently.  In college, “students cannot rely on someone else to do it for them”.  Furthermore,  “students need to know how to ask for the things they need in an appropriate way” Dr. Bassett also commented.  Aggressively demanding services or threatening to sue professors who do not accommodate a student’s needs will not do that student any good.  Section 504 outlines some of a student’s responsibilities that are essential starters for self-advocacy in college education, they include:

-Providing notification of a disability, including the cost of documentation of a disability, such as an optometrists report indicating blindness.

-Providing adequate notice of the need to receive accommodations to the proper office and professors.  (By law, colleges may not tell professors they will have a student with a disability in their class.)  

-Providing information that will assist the proper people in accommodating a student’s needs.

-Any personal equipment or readers used by the student at home is also the students’ responsibility.


According to Section 504, a college’s responsibilities include:

-Delivering accommodations in a timely manner, providing the student gave adequate notice. 

-Providing adaptive equipment at school for school use, which does not have to be the newest or most sophisticated on the market.

-Any services that are provided to students must be made available to a student with a disability.  This includes the health and recreation centers, sporting events and other activities.  Assistance in filling out federal financial aid papers is also covered by section 504.   


According to section 504, colleges may not:

-Limit the number of students with disabilities on campus

          -Give admission tests without equal access

          -Deny admission based off of disability          

-Limit financial assistance

-Advise a student to major in a more permitting career for a person with a disability

-Measure achievement by means of a biased assessment.


Several other areas are covered under section 504, such as attendance at private schools, treatment of non-U.S. Citizens and students not seeking a degree.  

Based off of Section 504, Dr. Bassett’s valuable information and my own experiences in college as a student with a visual impairment, I suggest the following:

-Visit prospective colleges one and a half years prior to desired start date.  During this visit, evaluate the campus’ accessibility and visit the Disabled Students’ office.  Visit dormitories, are they close to class buildings, are there laundry facilities and other necessary places near by?  Is there close off campus housing, if so, how far are grocery stores?  Is there a bus line in town, if so, how reliable is it? 

-Find a support network of people in this town, such as Vocational Rehabilitation, and an Orientation and Mobility instructor.  Get into contact with other students who are blind attending that college, they can provide you with any other information you may need concerning the college. 

Inquiries, such as these, will assist you in narrowing down your college application selections.    

-Apply to college at least one year before you intend on beginning.  This allows time to apply for financial aid and scholarships, which are usually due in February or March of each year.    

-Several months prior to your first semester, talk to the director of the Disabled Students’ Office.  Books in Braille or on tape take several months to order.  Therefore, you may be able to register for classes early, which allows books in your preferred format to be ordered and arrive on time.

-Schedule sessions with an Orientation and Mobility instructor weeks before your first day.  Have your class schedule ready, along with a list of places you will need on campus.  Provide this list for the instructor a head of time so he or she may locate these places and help you learn routes to them.  

-When at school, approach individual professors assertively when discussing your vision impairment.  Tell your professor what accommodations you make for yourself and what you may need from them.  Telling the professor the types of adjustments you make for yourself will not make it seem as if you are placing all of the responsibility on the professor.  Explain to the instructor how to make accommodations for you.  (For example, if you need large print handouts, explain how to enlarge font sizes on a computer or copy machine.)  Collaborate with the professor and disabled students’ office on how to accommodate other situations you may not find a solution to.   

You will encounter professors who will not make accommodations for you, or treat you differently than your peers.  This is when appropriate and assertive self-advocacy is most important.    

-Set testing accommodations well a head of time to avoid added stress during midterms and finals.

You may think you are going to college to get an education, however, you are providing an education to all of your peers.  Like it or not, other students will watch how you take notes, read, get around campus and socialize.  This is your chance to break stereotypes they may have about blindness.     

Get involved in campus activities.  Learn about other cultures, take electives outside of your major, volunteer to speak to teacher education classes about their future students who may have vision impairments, your presentation may be the only lesson they have in blindness. 

Adapt these basic guidelines to fit your own needs and find what works best for your own individual self.  In either case, my final, and most important advice: enjoy your college experience and HAVE FUN!

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