Position Statement on Colleges and Universities

Position Statement on Communication Access Services for Students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing at Colleges and Universities (2002)

It is the position of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) that American colleges and universities and vocational rehabilitation agencies are responsible for providing communication services for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.  This allows for equal access to postsecondary educational programs as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and by the Rehabilitation Act.  Such services include, but are not limited to, sign language and oral interpreter services, computer assisted real time transcription services, captioning, note-taking services, assistive listening systems, and related communication accommodations that are determined by the needs of individual students.

Responsibilities of Colleges and Universities

Colleges and universities are required to make their campuses and services accessible to people with disabilities.  This is clearly established under federal law, and many comparable state laws.  For example, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies to all colleges and universities that receive federal financial assistance, and to federal institutions.  Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to educational facilities operated by state and local governments.  Title III of the ADA applies to private educational facilities, which are considered “places of public accommodation.”  Under all of these laws, the costs of accommodations such as sign language interpreters and transcription services are the responsibility of the college or university, and cannot be passed on to the student.

Role of Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies

While the NAD believes that colleges/universities bear the ultimate responsibility to provide such services, the related issue of how these services are financed is not always so clear-cut.  State vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies carry out joint federal-state programs to help persons with disabilities achieve independence through job training and career counseling.  The VR program was established to provide funding and expertise on the vocational training needs of people with disabilities.

In many cases, VR agencies are expected to provide auxiliary aids and services to deaf students who are VR clients, as part of the student’s Individual Plan for Employment (IPE, formerly called Individual Written Rehabilitation Plan).  If a student is not eligible for VR services, or if a VR agency fails to provide funding for the services a student needs, then the college or university remains responsible for ensuring that its program is accessible to that student. Since 1977, the U.S. Department of Education has assumed that the bulk of auxiliary aids for college students will be paid for by state VR agencies and private charitable organizations.  42 Fed. Reg. 22692-93 (May 4, 1977).

The responsibilities of VR agencies are established by federal law in Title I of the Rehabilitation Act, but they vary from state to state, depending on the needs of individual clients, the type of program from which the client seeks training, and state policies for provision of rehabilitation services.  Increasingly, VR agencies are in conflict with colleges and universities over which agency is responsible for providing academically related accommodations such as interpreters and transcribers for deaf and hard of hearing students who are eligible for VR services.

Public Postsecondary Programs

In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act to instruct state VR agencies to enter into Interagency Agreements with other public entities, including public colleges and universities operated by state and local governments.  These agreements spell out which entity (the state rehabilitation agency and/or the public institution of higher education) will finance which communication services.  The agreements can call for shared costs, for formulas for the provision of services, or for decisions on a school-by-school basis.  The agreements should divide responsibilities clearly, in advance of demand from any given student, so that services for that student will not be delayed or denied unnecessarily while the various agencies argue over who will pay for what.

Thus, with respect to public (state, county, and local government) colleges, universities, and vocational, technical or trade schools, some or all communication services may be financed by state rehabilitation agencies on behalf of deaf or hard of hearing clients of those agencies who attend these postsecondary institutions.  The NAD notes that the Rehabilitation Act calls for state VR agencies to finance communication services needed by rehabilitation clients attending public postsecondary institutions that fail to provide such services, and then to seek reimbursement for these expenses from the postsecondary institutions.  The intent is to ensure that essential services are neither delayed nor denied.

However, if the student is not a VR client, or if the student is not eligible for VR services under VR policies or the Interagency Agreement, then public colleges are required by federal law to make their programs accessible, by paying for interpreters, transcribers or other necessary accommodations.

Private Postsecondary Programs

Students at private postsecondary institutions also may receive VR support for tuition and other educational expenses, including interpreter and communication services.  Especially where private institutions are the most appropriate source for the kind of training an individual client requires, the VR agency must provide necessary services or monitor the situation to be sure that the private program provides appropriate services.  Like public colleges, private postsecondary schools bear unequivocal responsibility to pay for communication services for their deaf or hard of hearing students who are not supported by VR agencies.

The NAD believes that state VR agencies must advocate on behalf of VR clients who attend private postsecondary programs, to make sure that the private schools understand the types of accommodations the student needs.  VR counselors have special expertise in the needs of students with disabilities. They have an important role in evaluating and identifying the appropriate accommodations for deaf or hard of hearing students.

Need to Adopt and Implement Comprehensive Interagency Agreements

The NAD is concerned that many VR agencies and state postsecondary institutions have not yet developed Interagency Agreements.  Until an Agreement is in place, students who are VR clients face uncertainty and possible delays in service.  It is essential for Agreements to be developed quickly.

While Interagency Agreements in some states incorporate provisions related to support for state rehabilitation clients who attend private schools, federal law does not require agreements to cover private schools.  Historically, many VR agencies and both public and private colleges and universities have fully accepted the job of providing communication access for deaf and hard of hearing students.  The NAD applauds such institutions. The NAD recognizes that such services can represent a substantial financial expenditure.  However, the NAD also knows that VR agencies and postsecondary institutions have been required to provide such services since the late 1970’s and that, over time, most such institutions have developed mechanisms to finance these services. These costs must be spread among all students, not just those with disabilities.  Accordingly, a postsecondary institution should incorporate projected costs for communication access as part of the overall budget structure at the institution.  At the same time, VR agencies must budget and seek funding to provide necessary services for their clients, and must also adopt policies that ensure that students who are deaf and disabled are not foreclosed from VR support.

The NAD encourages all state rehabilitation agencies to act swiftly, in accordance with the Rehabilitation Services Administration’s (RSA) Information Memorandum RSA-IM-98-23, to create Interagency Agreements with public institutions of postsecondary education.  The NAD also supports the suggestion made by the Postsecondary Education Programs Network (PEPNet) that private postsecondary institutions be invited to take part in discussions leading to such interagency agreements, to be sure their interests are represented in those deliberations.  Finally, the NAD encourages all VR agencies to develop state plans that meet the needs of deaf or hard of hearing students.  State plans should ensure that deaf students are not denied access to necessary support services by the imposition of funding caps or the imposition of criteria in the order of selection that tend to exclude deaf students.

The NAD also encourages state rehabilitation agencies to increase their services for disadvantaged youth and adults who are deaf or hard of hearing.  Most such individuals do not enjoy the privilege of attending postsecondary institutions.  Others dropped out of college without securing a diploma.  In many instances, the only remaining source of financial support for vocational training and job placement for these deaf or hard of hearing youth and adults is the state rehabilitation agency, acting together with other public job training programs in the “one stop” agencies authorized by the Workforce Investment Act.  Given continuing constraints in the federal and state funding provided to such agencies, the NAD believes that state rehabilitation agencies should place priority, whenever appropriate, upon communication services to deaf or hard of hearing individuals who are not attending postsecondary institutions.

Access to education and job training is essential for deaf or hard of hearing people.  The NAD encourages VR agencies and educational institutions to work together to ensure that deaf or hard of hearing students can achieve their vocational and educational goals.

Students who have been denied appropriate services by state VR agencies or by colleges or universities are encouraged to file complaints. Complaints against a postsecondary institution can be filed in court, or with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, or with the Office on the ADA of the U.S. Department of Justice.  A student who has been denied VR support may file an appeal with the appropriate office of the state VR Client Assistance Program (CAP).

Prepared by the NAD Government Affairs and Law Center.
Approved by the NAD Board of Directors on January 26, 2002.