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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)


The implications of The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is being felt on all campuses. How the law affects programs and instruction in higher education becomes clearer when conflicts are resolved through the courts. Case law has generally upheld two principles:

  • instruction must be accessible to students with disabilities
  • institutions can establish and maintain their academic standards

This section will include cases that are relevant to instruction in institutions of higher education.

The most talked-about case is the Guckenberger vs. Boston University case, a case that was first filed with the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts in 1996 and, ultimately, decided in 1998. This case achieved reknown because of some of the comments uttered by the president of the school that basically denied the legitimacy of a whole class of students with learning disabilities. His comments were in conflict with university policy, which had established policies to accommodate students with all disabilities, including learning disabilities. It had not, however, develop a clear policy regarding the limits of the accommodations.

The issue involved Elizabeth Guckenberger, a student with a documented learning disability. Ms. Guckenberger, the plaintiff, was denied a waiver from the foreign language requirement that was part of her program. Her attorneys alleged that her not being allowed a course substitution violated the "reasonable accommodation" stipulation of federal and state anti-discrimination laws. After a 10-day bench trial presided over by Judge Patti Saris, the Court concluded that "neither the ADA nor the Rehabilitation Act requires a university to provide course substitutions that the university rationally concludes would alter an essential part of its academic program."

The process, however, also led to the conclusion that a course substitution could be a reasonable means of providing an accommodation. The plaintiff's argument was partially successful due, in large part, to the Court's conclusion that Jon Westling, the President of BU, did not engage in any form of "reasoned deliberation as to whether modifications would change the essential academic standards of [the College's] liberal arts curriculum."

Judge Saris sent the issue back to the faculty of the Colege of Arts and Sciences, asking them to deliberate and explain why the foreign language requirement was essential to the academic standards of the liberal arts curriculum. The faculty committee was given until the end of the semester to examine the degree requirements and to determine "if a course substitution in foreign languages would fundamentally alter the nature of the liberal arts program." Their decision would be subject to the approval of the president, according to university by-laws.

Long meetings were held by the task force. These resulted in support for the essential importance of the foreign language requirement for a liberal arts degree from BU. This conclusion was supported by the president. It was conveyed to the First Circuit Court, which crafted the following test for evaluating the decision of an academic institution with respect to the availability of reasonable accommodations for the learning disabled:

"If the institution submits undisputed facts demonstrating that the relevant officials within the institution considered alternative means, their feasibility, cost and effect on the academic program, and came to a rationally justifiable conclusion that the available alternatives would result either in lowering academic standards or requiring substantial program alteration, the court could rule as a matter of law that the institution had met its duty of seeking reasonable accommodation."

The committee decision was supported because it explained the reason for the foreign language requirement in light of its purposes as an institution, including the educational gain achieved in learning a foreign languge and the university goal of developing multiculturalism on campus. They also were able to support their decision because of the various forms of accommodation available within the institution, including spelling accommodations and a free foreign language "enhancement" program that provided one-on-one instruction to learning disabled students, additional time on tests, a reading track for French and Spanish, distraction-free testing, distribution of lecture notes in advance and replacement of written with oral exams.

This case sheds light on the processes an institution of higher education must have in place in order to create an environment that supports learning for all otherwise qualified students with disabilities.


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