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Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS1288

Developmental Disabilities Series: Disabilities Laws and Program Accommodations and Modifications

  • Jeannette Rea-Keywood, 4-H Agent, Department of 4-H Youth Development
  • Michelle F. Brill, Family and Community Health Sciences Educator, Mercer County


When planning and delivering programs for clientele with developmental disabilities it is important for educators to understand the legal protections due these individuals and to learn how to make the accommodations and modifications needed for successful participation.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) defines disability as a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. A major life activity is one that is central to daily life. These activities include walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, caring for oneself, sitting, standing, lifting, learning, thinking, working, and performing manual tasks. The activities that would be most applicable to educational programs are those that affect communication, learning, self-care, self-direction, social skills, and performing manual tasks. ADA protection extends not only to individuals who currently have a disability, but to those who have a record of a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or who are perceived or regarded as having a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major activities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990; the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-325) which became effective on January 1, 2009; and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. The term disability is broadly defined under these laws and includes but is not limited to:

  • Learning, psychological or developmental disabilities
  • Physical impairments, illnesses, malformations or disfigurements
  • Visual or hearing impairments, speech impediments, AIDS, HIV infection, sickle cell trait, and other atypical hereditary cellular blood traits

The ADA gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications. The ADA enables society to benefit from the skills and talents of individuals with disabilities.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

There are two additional laws that are relevant or specific to school settings: The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. 794d) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Like the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs run by federal agencies, and programs that receive federal financial assistance, which include institutions of higher learning. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act ensures that the child with a disability has equal access to an education. The child may receive accommodations and modifications; for example, program accessibility and effective communication with people who have hearing or vision disabilities. Each federal agency has its own set of Section 504 regulations that apply to its programs. The U.S. Department of Education makes sure that students with disabilities get the kinds of educational services they need to succeed in school. Unlike the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 does not require a public school to provide an individualized educational program (IEP) that is designed to meet a child's unique needs and provide the child with educational benefit. Under Section 504, fewer procedural safeguards are available to the child with a disability and the child's parents than under IDEA.

Section 508 of the federal Rehabilitation Act requires agencies to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to electronic information and data comparable to those who do not have disabilities, unless an undue burden (e.g., significant difficulty or expense) would be imposed on the agency. Public universities that receive federal funding through the Assistive Technology Act are required to meet Section 508 standards for web-based intranet and internet information and applications. Examples of materials that would require accommodations would include:

  • Videos that have audio must have captioning and text transcripts
  • Audio files must have text transcripts
  • Images must have alternate text or descriptions set for them to convey meaning
  • Color-blind individuals must be able to interpret a page successfully
  • HTML tables must use the appropriate tags to designate column headers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is committed to making its electronic and information technologies accessible to individuals with disabilities by meeting or exceeding the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, as amended in 1998.


Inclusion means to involve individuals with disabilities in the same clubs, events, activities, and programs as individuals without disabilities. It is vital that all participants, those with and without disabilities, are provided with the same opportunity to learn and develop skills. Inclusion results in a rewarding experience for all involved including greater self-reliance and self-confidence for those with disabilities. Participants without disabilities can experience a greater awareness and learn that people with disabilities are not so different and have strengths and weaknesses, as well as unique abilities.

Program Accommodations and Modifications

The term "accommodation" may be used to describe an alteration of environment, curriculum format, or use of equipment that allows an individual with a disability to gain access to content and/or complete assigned tasks. Program accommodations allow students with disabilities to participate in the educational venue or activity. Accommodations alter the method by which the educational experience is delivered, but not the content that is being taught. Examples of accommodations include:

  • sign language interpreters for individuals who are deaf
  • computer text-to-speech systems for individuals with visual impairments or dyslexia
  • extended time for individuals with fine motor limitations, visual impairments, or learning disabilities
  • large-print books and worksheets for individuals with visual impairments
  • trackballs and alternative keyboards for individuals who cannot operate a standard mouse and keyboard

The term "modification" may be used to describe a change in the curriculum or educational content. Modifications are made for individuals with disabilities who are unable to comprehend all of the content an instructor is teaching. For example, tasks or activities might be reduced in number and/or modified significantly for an individual with cognitive impairments that limit their ability to understand the content.

When there are individuals with disabilities participating in a program you are conducting, it is important to modify and adapt program requirements; the activity; and/or the physical environment to meet the needs of the individuals taking part. Check to see if your organization has an Office of Disability Services or similar office to provide assistance with accommodations. Other sources are included in the Information on Academic Accommodations section.

Below are two types of program accommodations:

  • Provide equipment that accommodates the individual's physical needs. For example, a person in a wheelchair could participate in a gardening project using a raised garden bed or container gardening.
  • Adapt the physical environment if necessary. Accommodations might include adapted heights of seating or tables, color-coding kitchen utensils, or adapting equipment or lighting.

Below are two types of program modifications:

  • Modify the project or activity to match the ability of the individual. For example, the method of giving instruction or the number of steps required to complete the task may be altered based on the individual's abilities.
  • Modify program requirements if necessary. In an animal project, for example, a person with disabilities may be able to receive assistance from another individual to take care of and/or show an animal.

Information and Communication

Communication with family members, caregivers and the individual is important to help you better serve and involve both youth and adult participants with disabilities in the programs you are conducting. It must be assumed that the participant is able to do any task or program until they tell you that they cannot or that they need a modification/accommodation. The accommodations that you provide need to be approved by the participant and/or legally consenting guardians. (Johnson et al. 2016)

It is best to determine the needs of participants as early as possible to plan for any agreed-upon accommodations. A protocol for legally, respectfully, and efficiently ascertaining whether there are individuals with disabilities with such needs in your program should be developed such as an optional information sheet, or optional section of the program registration form. This form should be provided to all participants as it would be considered discrimination to require only certain participants to complete the information based on assumptions made. The questions posed should focus on the accommodations and assistance that individual participants need to be successful in the program, and should not be used as a vehicle for labeling the specific disability that affects the participants (Johnson et al. 2016).

Be sure to follow the policies and procedures of your organization and maintain confidentiality of all personal information provided at all times. Ensure that the medical history portion of the program enrollment paperwork is complete and accurate. Keep it readily available, but confidential.

Below are some tips regarding communication and information gathering:

  • Using the suggested protocol, obtain information about the individual including any mobility; healthcare or behavioral management needs; their communication style and abilities (hearing, vision, speech); and the need for assistance with daily tasks such as eating or using the bathroom.
  • If needed, inquire about the participant's developmental reading level and listening ability in order to prepare program material that is accessible and appropriate.
  • Involve youth and parents/guardians or the adult and their caregiver as much as possible in setting goals and modifying the program to meet the individual's needs.
  • Obtain suggestions from the parent/guardians or caregiver about strategies to best engage the youth or adult participant. Be aware that sometimes problematic or inappropriate behavior is often the default behavior for individuals with developmental disabilities. Discuss with the child's parents or the adult's caregiver the probability of inappropriate behavior and how to best defuse or address these behaviors. Youth participants may have a Behavior Intervention Plan or Individualized Education Plan at school. Community-based educators do not have access to these plans; however, parents/guardians may elect to share such plans with you in order to better meet the participant's needs (Johnson et al. 2016).
  • Identify special dietary needs and chewing or swallowing problems. If a special diet is necessary, the parent or caregiver should provide food. When food or cooking is involved, be sure to gather information about any food allergies or intolerances; sensory issues such as food texture or temperature; oral-motor skills; or significant mealtime behaviors. Be especially vigilant regarding hygiene and safety when cooking.

Evaluation and Research

If you are utilizing end-of-program evaluations or conducting other types of programmatic survey research, be sure to review the requirements and procedures of your organization, school, or university (Institutional Review Board). It is important to identify the individual's ability (cognitive and physical) to complete evaluations or surveys; provide appropriate accommodations; and determine the individual's ability to consent or who can consent on their behalf.

Open to All - Equal Opportunity Program Provider

As a public educational entity, Cooperative Extension is an equal opportunity program provider and employer. Cooperative Extension must be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act which states that no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as your state law(s) prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. Rutgers University adheres to the ADA as well as the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and provides reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship.

If you need to make accommodations, contact your State Extension Director's Office; local or state Department of Human Services; or the Affirmative Action Officer in your place of work to assist you in in serving your program participants.


A disability is a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Inclusion means to involve individuals with special needs in the same clubs, events, and programs as individuals without special needs.

The Americans with Disabilities Act enables society to benefit from the skills and talents of individuals with disabilities and guarantees equal opportunity. Obtain information about participants' abilities and maintain confidentiality at all times. Educators must comply with all federal and state regulations and should acquaint themselves with how to secure the services provided through their Office of Disability Services or similar office. It may be necessary to modify the project or activity, program requirements or physical environment to accommodate the needs of the clientele.

Information on Academic Accommodations

  1. Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology, University of Washington. Building the team: faculty, staff, and students working together. 2001. Video available at
  2. Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology, University of Washington. What is the difference between accommodation and modification for a student with a disability? 2015. Available at
  3. Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology, University of Washington. Working together: faculty and students with disabilities. 2012. Available at
  4. Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology, University of Washington. Working together: K–12 teachers and students with disabilities. 2012. Available at
  5. Ellerbusch, K.M., Dean, S., & Smith, M.A. Fun 4 All: An Inclusion Initiative for Youth with Disabilities. University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension and the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Available at (PDF).
  6. Melikechi, L. United Cerebral Palsy of Delaware, Inc. A Camp for Everyone: A Guide to Including Children of All Abilities in Summer Camp Programs. Available at (PDF).


  1. Council for Exceptional Children. "Understanding the Differences between IDEA and Section 504." 2017. Accessed January 4, 2017.
  2. Johnson, D., Katchur, N., Pothuri, V., Ptak, B. & Sly, M. 2016. "The Rutgers Cooperative Extension of New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station: Modification and Clarification of 4-H and FCHS Professional Development Series." Student research project, Princeton University.
  3. Rutgers University Human Resources: Disability Accommodations. Accessed November 16, 2016.
  4. The State of New Jersey; Department of Law and Public Safety; Office of the Attorney General; Division on Civil Rights. Accessed November 16, 2016.
  5. United States Department of Agriculture Accessibility Statement. 2015. Accessed November 16, 2016.
  6. United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. 2008. "ADA Best Practices Tool Kit for State and Local Governments, Chapter 1: ADA Basic: Statute and Regulations." Accessed July 17, 2017.
  7. U.S. Government Printing Office, United States Code, 2009 Edition, Title 42: The Public Health and Welfare; Chapter 126 Equal Opportunity for Individuals with Disabilities. Accessed November 16, 2016.
  8. Wrights Law. Discrimination: Section 504 and ADA AA. 2016. Accessed January 4, 2017.

April 2018