Definition of Terms


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects and considers a person disabled if they:

  • Have a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities.
  • Have a record of such impairment.
  • Have a record of being discriminated against because of being regarded as a person with a disability.
  • Have a person with a disability dependent on him or her (associated with a person who has a disability).

Substantial Impairment

  • Rather than specifying particular disabilities, the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act set the criteria for an individual’s protections at the threshold of a “mental or physical impairment” that substantially limits any major life activity. It is terminology that is one central aspect of the process of determining whether a person has a civil right to accommodations for a disability. It is central language to watch for in reading rulings by the Office of Civil Rights and court decisions related to disability services.
  • In most cases, there is little dispute regarding whether an individual student has a “substantial” limitation or impairment. There is a large body of adjudication to aid colleges in deciding individual cases, as decisions made under the 1973 Rehabilitation Act reflect much of the same statutory language as included in the ADA.


  • Verifying documents which both determine a person’s mental or physical impairment and describe the impairment adequately for the university to be able to determine the degree of resulting limitation of a major life activity to aid in the design of reasonable accommodations.
  • Documentation must be provided by the student. All disabilities must be verified with documentation.


  • That aspect of the documentation that is collected in a student’s file which verifies the existence of a disability. (See also definition of “documentation” above.).
  • Verification must be provided by the student.


  • Adjustments made in course materials or instructional methodology which do not change the essential nature of academic and technical standards of the course.
  • Adjustments made in the physical attributes of a classroom such as provision of tables and/or chairs, which do not disrupt the essential activities of the class or program.
  • Assistive technology made available to persons with disabilities by Accessibility Services.


  • Reasonable is a term central to disability services and the design of accommodations.
  • Colleges must provide reasonable accommodations to assure access to persons with disabilities for all institutional programs and services.
  • A request for an accommodation which would waive an essential element of a course would be determined to be unreasonable. However, the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights has yet to accept financial burden or cost as a reason for not providing a reasonable accommodation. Public post-secondary education institutions, with the resources of a state behind them, have not succeeded in claiming that cost factors have made accommodations unreasonable.
  • A request for accommodation which would put the requesting student or others in danger would be considered an unreasonable accommodation.
  • A request to provide SIGN interpretation, provide books in an alternate format, multimedia resource materials, or extended time for testing situations, would most likely be considered a reasonable accommodation request, if supported by verifying documentation.
  • Accessibility Services staff maintains binders which include guidelines and Office of Civil Rights or court decisions which aid in determining the reasonableness of accommodation requests and services.

Learning Disability:

The term “learning disabilities”, sometimes referred to as specific learning disabilities, is an umbrella term that covers a range of neurologically based disorders in learning and various degrees of severity of such disorders. Predecessor terms include: minimal brain damage and minimal brain dysfunction.

Broadly speaking, these disorders involve difficulty in one or more, but not uniformly in all, basic psychological processes: (1) input (auditory and visual perception), (2) integration (sequencing, abstraction, and organization), (3) memory (working, short term, and long term memory), (4) output (expressive language), and (5) motor (fine and gross motor) (Learning Disabilities Association of America, 2019).