Transition 1: What Laws Affect Transition?


“I work with students with learning disabilities at the high school level. Many of them are hoping to attend college but few know what to expect. I am not sure how to help them. Can you provide some information about the transition?”—Timothy, Va.

Additional Info:

Timothy, TeachingLD looked at the literature and posted our own poll on this topic. It appears you are not alone. Many special educators, students, and parents do not know what to expect when it comes to services for students with disabilities in higher education. The topic of transition is so broad that we decided to answer your question in a series of Expert Connection articles. Each article will address a different aspect of transition, including what services are provided, how to get services, and what study skills may make the transition go smoothly. Jennifer Lindstrom, a member of the faculty in special education at the University of Georgia and an expert in this area, has written our series. We hope that you will check back for all of the responses.


Over the past decade, postsecondary education has become an increasingly viable option for students with learning disabilities. Postsecondary education is targeted as an important transition outcome for students with disabilities because of the impact of a college degree on future adult outcomes (Madaus & Shaw, 2006). Exploring postsecondary options, however, is often a daunting task for parents and students alike, but with the right planning, support, and information this can be a positive and truly successful next step for every student.

What Laws Protect Students with Learning Disabilities in College? 
State and federal laws play a vital role in the preparation and transition of students with learning disabilities from high school to college, as well as the quality of education they receive.  There is a clear distinction between the legal protections available to students with disabilities in K-12 schools and the rights and supports available to students in higher education. 

K-12 public schools must comply with the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA 2004). Services and protections available under IDEA are terminated when a student graduates from high school.  Postsecondary institutions, such as colleges and universities, must comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Because they are very different laws, students and parents should familiarize themselves with the differences. Students who were eligible for services under IDEA 2004 are not automatically eligible for services under Section 504 and ADA in college and university settings. I have outlined some of the major differences in Table 1.

Table 1 Key Differences in IDEA and Section 504 and ADA

ConceptIDEASection 504ADA
Who qualifies?Determined by meeting requirements outlined in 13 disability categories AND requiring special educationDisabled persons means any person who(i) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities,(ii) has a record of such impairment, or(iii) is regarded as having such an impairment.  §104.3(j)(1).To be protected by the ADA, one must have a disability or have a relationship or association with an individual with a disability. An individual with a disability is defined as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.
What is the purpose of the law?To provide a free appropriate public education to students with disabilities“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 706(8) of this title, shall, solely by reason of her or his handicap, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service….”  —29 U.S.C. 794(a) (1973).The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.
What services are provided?Determined by student need but could include various therapies, adaptations, accommodations, and instructionRequirements common to these regulations include reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities; program accessibility; effective communication with people who have hearing or vision disabilities; and accessible new construction and alterations. (from Rehab Act)People with disabilities must have an equal opportunity to benefit from all of their programs, services, and activities (e.g., public education, employment, transportation, recreation, health care, social services, courts, voting, and town meetings) and benefit from the full range of employment-related opportunities available to others. (From Guide)
Who identifies the individual with a disability?schoolIndividual with disabilityIndividual with disability

It is important to understand that Section 504 and ADA are anti-discrimination legislation. In other words, they guarantee that an otherwise qualified individual with a disability will not be discriminated against due to the disability. IDEA, on the other hand, guarantees an education that is appropriate to meet individual needs.

In comparison to IDEA 2004, there is more variation in how the “rules” of Section 504 and ADA are implemented from one institution to another because these laws are less prescriptive and do not dictate any one way to be implemented. Because each college or university establishes its own procedures based on its interpretation of the ADA and Section 504, descriptions of what to expect at colleges are based on what is typical of most colleges – which means that it is important to check with each institution about its policies and expectations. For instance, there is no set rule as to whether the disability services office or the individual professors provide the accommodations. Often, the disability services office provides the accommodations, because it is easier for the office rather than the individual professor. However, some professors like to administer their own exams and accommodate students rather than have the disability services office administer the exam.

Read the rest of Dr. Lindstrom’s response here.

To cite this article, please use the following format: Lindstrom, J. (2007, January 10). Expert connection: Transitioning from High School to College. Retrieved from