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Determining fundamental alterations and essential requirements

As stated in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act:

  • No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 705 (20) of this title, shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
  • In its course examinations or other procedures for evaluating students' academic achievement, a recipient…shall provide such methods for evaluating the achievement of students who have a handicap that impairs sensory, manual, or speaking skills as will best ensure that the results of the evaluation represents the student's achievement in the course, rather than reflecting the student's impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills (except where such skills are the factors that the test purports to measure).

Under the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008, “A public entity must reasonably modify its policies, practices, or procedures to avoid discrimination. If the public entity can demonstrate, however, that the modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of its service, program, or activity, it is not required to make the modification” (ADA Title II Technical Assistance Manual). Through various Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights case resolutions, the federal government has clarified that colleges and universities must:

  • engage in an individualized, interactive process with each student request for accommodations and avoid blanket statements or policies regarding accommodations (OCR No. 10-16-2203),
  • the student must not be put in the place of requesting their accommodation more than once and must not be left to negotiate their accommodation with faculty (OCR No. 01-16-2113)
  • the decision of whether an accommodation may fundamentally alter an essential course/ program objective must be made by a group of knowledgeable and trained individuals at the college within the program and the disability services office (OCR No. 01-16-2120; 03-14-2248),
  • the group pursues a thoughtful, careful, rational review of the course/program essential objectives and requirements (OCR No. 01-16-2120), and
  • considers a series of alternatives and modifications that does not fundamentally alter the course/program even if it is not the accommodation originally requested (OCR No. 01-16-2120).

What does fundamental alteration mean within the context of higher education and disability?

A "fundamental alteration" is a change that is so significant it alters the essential nature of a course or a program of instruction.

  • A major change in the nature of the program.
  • Lowering an academic standard.
  • Removing or waiving acquisition of a skill that is essential.
  • Removing or waiving acquisition of a skill that is directly related to the health and safety of others.
  • Removing or waiving requirements that are directly related to qualifying for that license.

Whether accommodations “would fundamentally alter the nature of its service, program, or activity” must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis (Title II, Americans with Disabilities Act). The goal is to distinguish the nature of how the course has always been taught from the truly essential objectives and requirements of the course or academic program. Through this process, methods of instruction and assessment may be examined to determine how the course or program information is taught and whether there are opportunities for alternate format of materials, alternative teaching and learning methods, additional skills or strategies, etc.

  • Universities are not required to modify academic requirements that are essential to the instruction being pursued or directly related to a licensing requirement. However, flexibility in instructional methods, assignments, or assessment may be appropriate as a reasonable accommodation depending on the nature of the course and its requirements. Often alternative opportunities are available for teaching and learning the information, the format of materials, skills etc.

If it is determined that a requested academic adjustment would result in a fundamental alteration, the University must then consider whether there are alternative academic adjustments that could accommodate a student without fundamentally altering the course.

Essential requirements

Essential course and program objectives are identified as the core learning outcomes (such as skills, knowledge, or licensure requirements) that all students must demonstrate, with or without accommodations, which are part of the interconnected curriculum requiremnts of the degree or academic program.

Established essential objectives and requirements:

  • Clearly articulate the overall purpose of the course/program
  • Identify required mastery of specific skills, knowledge, principles, and concepts
  • Convey the framework used to set academic and program standards
  • Ensure a fair deliberation with qualified campus professionals when determining if a requested accommodation would be a fundamental alteration

To determine the essential requirements for a course or program, the following questions should be considered:

  • What fundamental course objective does this accommodation alter?
  • What practical function does this fundamental objective serve in the academic program?
  • Can the department provide documentation of the fundamental course objective (e.g. syllabus, professional association certification requirement, technical standard, etc.)?
  • How does the requested accommodation alter this fundamental course objective?
  • Has this accommodation been approved to students without disabilities or for any other situation or reason in your class in the current semester or in the past? If so, Why?
  • Is there any alternate way the student could demonstrate competence without undermining the essential course objectives? For example, an alternate accommodation that would not alter the essential objective of the course/program.
  • Has the program or professor ever made modifications to the standard, learning outcome, or expectations in other student situations? If yes, how is the current situation different?
  • Programs or degrees
    • What skills or competencies will be needed within the field after graduation?
    • What are the requirements for licensing or professional accreditation?

If a faculty member is concerned that an accommodation fundamentally alters an essential requirement or course objective of a course or academic program, please contact Accessibility and Disability Service. The University of Maryland Disability & Accessibility Policy and Procedures provides further guidance.

Any additional compliance questions may be directed to the ADA/504 coordinator.