Feds issue additional guidance on 2008 disability revision

Although four years have passed since Congress approved the last major rewrite of the Americans with Disabilities Act, federal education officials are continuing their efforts to further clarify the 2008 Amendments Act" legislation for local school districts.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights issued a guidance letter reminding local officials that federal law now carries fairly broad interpretations as to the definition of disabled' under both the Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

While districts might be keenly focused on the demands made of schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the "Dear Colleague" letter issued Jan. 19 notes that federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by all public entities - including schools.

In an attached Frequently Asked Questions document, the department also provides school officials with highlights made in 2008 that were adopted in an effort to supersede earlier U.S. Supreme Court rulings that Congress believed had misinterpreted the Americans with Disabilities Act too narrowly.

The revisions, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2009, amended the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act to broaden the meaning of disability and, in most cases, shifted the inquiry away from the question of whether a student has a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504, and toward school districts' actions and obligations to ensure equal education opportunities.

"The Amendments Act emphasizes that the definition of disability' in Section 504 and the ADA should be interpreted to allow for broad coverage," noted the question-and-answer document that accompanied the letter. "Students who, in the past, may not have been determined to have a disability under Section 504 and Title II may now in fact be found to have a disability under those laws."

The Office of Civil Rights letter addresses school districts' various obligations, such as requirements to evaluate students for disability and to provide a free appropriate public education to students with disabilities, as well as the changes made by the Amendments Act.

To further the Americans with Disabilities Act's intent, the Amendments Act specifically:

- directs that the ameliorating effects of mitigating measures (other than ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses) may not be considered in determining whether an individual has a disability;

- expands the scope of "major life activities" by providing non-exhaustive lists of general activities and major bodily functions;

- clarifies that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active; and

- clarifies how the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to individuals who are "regarded as" having a disability.

"It is critical school districts remain vigilant in their duty to protect the civil rights of all their students, including students with disabilities," Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali said in a statement. "When Congress changes the law affecting those rights, districts must ensure their policies and practices reflect this altered landscape."

To read the Dear Colleague letter, visit http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201109.html. Frequently asked questions are posted at http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/dcl-504faq-201109.html

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