504 Plans for College Students with Chronic Illnesses


Excerpt from
504 Plans. Click here  for the full article.

Universities and colleges  provide accommodations for students with qualifying disabilities.  But there are differences in the way things are handled at the post-secondary level compared with high schools.  Here’s what you need to know: 

  • At the college level, it is up to the student to decide whether to disclose that he or she has a chronic illness.  However, in order to receive accommodations, students need to contact the Office of Disabilities—or department with a similar name—and let them know about their illnesses and the accommodations they need.  This is different than in the elementary and secondary school level, where schools are responsible for identifying which students require plans and accommodations, and are mandated to meet those needs.
  • Students will need to have forms filled out by their doctors providing evidence of their illnesses, and proving that their illness qualifies them for accommodations. These forms are provided by the school.
  • The accommodations offered at the post-secondary school level are more limited than in grade schools. Primary and secondary schools are responsible for providing students under the age of 18 with a “free and appropriate education (FAPE).”  Under FAPE schools must modify their policies and requirements to fit the needs of students with disabilities. Colleges are not held to the same standard–they are not required to modify their policies or academic requirements.  While post-secondary schools cannot discriminate against students based solely on disability, they are allowed to deny admission to students who do not meet their academic standards. Once admitted, students are expected to complete the work and exams associated with their classes.  However, students with disabilities are not left completely on their own—colleges are required to provide accommodations that help them meet the academic requirements.
  • Students over the age of 18 are adults, and have the right to privacy independent of their parents.  As such, their parents are not allowed access to their health or academic records and are not allowed to make decisions for their children. If students want their parents to participate and have access to their records, they can sign a waiver under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).  Students can rescind the waiver at any time. Colleges often encourage their students to take charge of their health and academic needs, as a step toward becoming independent adults.  However, students may still want a waiver in place in case of an emergency.
  • When a student requests accommodations, only the disability coordinator needs to know about his/her medical conditions.  School staff and professors are given a list of accommodations they must follow that does not include the student’s diagnosis. It is up to the student to decide how much more information, if any, to disclose.
  •  Universities vary in how well they accommodate their students with chronic illnesses and other disabilities.  Some schools are more sensitive to the needs of their students and have systems already in place that can make things easier.  Students may want to consider how well a university provides for its students with disabilities when deciding where to attend school. (campus explorer).  Look at college websites and brochures for their policies and programs. You can also call the school’s Disabilities Office for information before you apply.
  • Students at the college level are often expected to be proactive in requesting and implementing their accommodations.  For example, if a student would like a class recorded, he might be expected to buy the recorder and ask classmates or the professor to record the class.
  • There are no I.E.P’s at the college and university levels.  Universities and Colleges are still required to offer 504 plans (if receiving federal funding), or plans consistent with the ADA.

504 Accommodations at the College Level

The accommodations at colleges and universities are more limited than those provided in secondary schools.  They focus on helping students with 504 plans meet the requirements of their chosen programs, and providing accommodations related to a student’s medical needs. Here are some examples of accommodations relevant to students with chronic illnesses at the college level:

  • Extra time to take exams.
  • Stop-the-clock testing.  If the student is not feeling well, they will be able to finish the test at a later time.
  • Reduced course-load, and allowing extra time to complete a degree program.
  • Extra time to hand in assignments due to illness.
  • Ability to tape record classes.
  • Ability to leave and rejoin class to take care of medical needs, including use of bathrooms.
  • Ability to carry and take medications.
  • Students are allowed to take college admissions exams with accommodations (SAT, ACT, LSAT, etc.). Students would contact the administrator of the test, and the test location, in advance to ask for accommodations.
  • Colleges and Universities DO NOT have to provide accommodations that:
    • Create an undue financial or administrative burden on the school;
    • Fundamentally alter the school’s academic program; or
    • Request personal care–like help with bathing or eating (Disability Rights California). 

Appeal Process at the College and University Level

If your school refuses to give you the accommodations you need or if you believe the school has discriminated against you on the basis of your illness, you can appeal the decision or file a grievance.  Here’s how:

  • Start by discussing the problem with the Office of Disabilities:  Sometimes, issues can be resolved without having to file a formal grievance.  Visit the Disabilities Office and try to work out a solution together.  If you cannot solve the problem with the school, it may be time to file a formal grievance with your college.
  • File an internal grievance/appeal with your college:  Each school will have its own process for filing appeals related to 504 plans and complaints of discrimination.  Information on where to file a complaint will likely be listed on the college’s website or in catalogues and brochures.  The college will review the 504 plan decisions and investigate accusations of discrimination.
  • File a complaint in Federal Court:  If you are still not able to resolve the dispute, you can file a lawsuit in Federal Court.
  • File a Complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR):  OCR oversees compliance with Section 504.  You can fill out a complaint form with OCR, and the agency will investigate the complaint.  You can file a complaint with OCR at any time, even if you are in the middle of a hearing or during a court action.
  • Contact a lawyer or parent advocate at any time: If you run into any difficulties at any point and feel that you need professional advice, you can consult a lawyer or parent advocate. Some charge fees, but a few offer free services. Here are links to some organizations that can connect you with lawyers and advocates specializing in helping students with disabilities, including chronic illnesses:
  • Advocacy for Patients with Chronic Illnesses: A nonprofit that provides free legal services on issues related to chronic illnesses.
  • Wrightslaw: A law firm specializing in special education rights.  They have an extensive list of lawyers and parent advocates on their website.

LINKS to College information:

Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities. U. S. Department of Education.July 2002

Rights of Students with Disabilities in Higher Education: A Guide for College and University Students. Disability Rights California. July 2012, Pub #5309.01. 

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One Response to 504 Plans for College Students with Chronic Illnesses

  1. Tyson Parks says:

    I have experienced diabetic discrimination due to misconceptions at Carl Sandburg College.

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