In addition to the individual rights under the IDEA and Section 504, students with disabilities are protected from discrimination by the broad anti-discrimination protections of Section 504. There may be additional state and local regulations that provide similar or overlapping protections.
Section 504 (formally, “Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973”) is a federal anti-discrimination statute. It prohibits disability discrimination in any program or activity that receives federal financial assistance, including public schools. Discrimination includes, but is not limited to, excluding a disabled individual from participation in or the benefits of an educational program. The purpose of Section 504 is to give students with disabilities equal access to programs to the same extent as their peers without disabilities. This purpose is sometimes described as “removing barriers” to educational programs.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is another law that prohibits discrimination. Title II of the ADA applies to state and local governments. In general, the prohibitions against disability discrimination are the same under the ADA as they are under Section 504. The ADA also includes minimum standards for many physical accessibility features, including items like parking spaces and accessible restrooms. Depending on when a building was built and whether significant remodeling has taken place, there may be some areas that remain inaccessible to some individuals with disabilities.
Section 504 and Title II of the ADA apply to any schools that receive federal financial assistance, which includes all public K-12 schools, all public colleges and universities, and most private colleges and universities. Speech and debate tournaments may be hosted at private secondary schools that are not covered by these laws. These schools are subject to Title III of the ADA, which addresses places of public accommodation. Public places teams may use when traveling, such as hotels, airplanes, and private businesses, are also subject to Title III. Places of public accommodation must adhere to the accessibility requirements of the ADA.
When students need accommodations in order to compete, such accommodations must address a disability-related need and not constitute a fundamental alteration of the event in which they are competing. The key distinction between an appropriate accommodation and a fundamental alteration is whether the change modifies the skill being evaluated. For example, in limited prep events, an appropriate accommodation could include having someone read the draw slips aloud to a student with a visual impairment. The purpose of the event is not to assess a student’s ability to read, so this is appropriate. In contrast, one of the skills involved in limited prep is the speaker’s ability to prepare within a set time period. It would be a fundamental alteration to the event to allow a competitor additional preparation time beyond what is offered to all competitors.
Some examples of appropriate accommodations are:
- ADA accessible rooms or access to an elevator key.
- Allowing a student access to a fidget toy during others’ performances.
- Permission to leave a round to test blood sugar or take a break.
- Setting aside a classroom for a student to spend time in between rounds to avoid the sensory stimulation of large crowds.
- Providing an American Sign Language interpreter.
- Permission to perform seated rather than standing.
Some examples of fundamental alterations that would not be required are:
- Requiring debaters to slow down their rate of speech.
- Extending preparation time in a limited prep event.
- Allowing a student to play a video or audio recording of their performance rather than performing live (unless allowed for all performers).
- Allowing a non-competing student to scribe the important arguments for a competitor during a debate round.