University of Montana Western logo.
Apply Visit More Info

Disability Accommodation vs. Special Education Entitlement

What are a university’s responsibilities to students with disabilities, and how do those responsibilities differ from a school’s responsibilities under special education law (IDEA)?

Students who have been served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) while in elementary or secondary school often harbor some misconceptions about a university’s responsibilities to persons with disabilities and the range of services a post-secondary institution is required to provide. Though post-secondary institutions such as MSU do have a legal responsibility (under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act) to make their programs and services accessible to persons with disabilities, the broad mandated responsibilities that elementary and secondary schools incur under the IDEA don’t apply to post-secondary institutions.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is an “entitlement” law intended to guarantee persons with disabilities a free and appropriate primary and secondary education that allows for achievement. Within this educational framework, funding is mandated to identify children with significant problems and provide them with appropriate services that facilitate successful learning. Aggressive measures, including the substantial alteration of academic course requirements, are often used to assure the success of students in special education programs.

In contrast, section 504 and the ADA are “non-discrimination” statutes that are based on a civil rights model. They aren’t entitlement laws, and they don’t guarantee successful learning or mandate the creation of special programs for persons with disabilities. Instead, section 504 and the ADA guarantee that the simple presence of a disability cannot be used as the basis for denying an otherwise qualified student equal “access” to the same programs, services and facilities available to others. Simply stated, the goal of section 504 and the ADA is to remove barriers and to guarantee reasonable accommodations so that persons with disabilities have an opportunity to participate at the level enjoyed by the average person

Parental Involvement Policy

The parent (or legal guardian) of a primary or secondary school pupil with a disability is an essential participant in school decisions about that child’s disability-related needs. When that child enters the university, however, the parent no longer participates directly in the institution’s decision-making process. The parent may continue to offer the student (or prospective student) advice and support, but the student becomes solely responsible for communicating with university personnel about disability-related matters.

Disability Support Services (DSS) staff are aware of the difficulty of this role change and welcome the opportunity to offer advice and general policy information to the parents of students with disabilities; however, the parent is not recognized by DSS as a surrogate for the student in matters related to the student’s disability accommodations and services. In accordance with this perspective, DSS has established the following limits on parental involvement.


A student or prospective student who wishes to request disability accommodations or a formal review of disability documentation must submit a request for such services. A request from a parent, a legal guardian, a clinician, a school official, or another third party will not be accepted in lieu of a direct request from the student.

DSS personnel will not discuss the following with the parent or legal guardian of a student (term understood to include the prospective student) unless the student is present during the discussion and a signed release of information from the student is on file with DSS.

When appropriate, the student receives detailed written communication from DSS concerning these matters. Parents and legal guardians are encouraged, therefore, to request information directly from the student.

Tips to Help Your Student Make a Successful Transition

Confidentiality and Privacy of Records

Your right to privacy and confidentiality is a high priority at UMW’s Disability Support Services. All records are kept in a secure electronic database, except as noted below, no information regarding a student’s disability or use of services will be released to parties outside of DSS without prior written consent:

File Maintenance

DSS student files are maintained for seven (7) years from the date of last attendance. At the end of the seven-year period, all records in the file will be destroyed.

For this reason, students are advised to retain personal copies of all disability documentation submitted to DSS.

Parent and Family Program, Dean of Students Office