December 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA1

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What Cooperative Extension Should Know About the Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), states that its purpose is to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities, to provide enforceable standards, and to ensure that these standards are enforced. Cooperative Extension may be particularly vulnerable because their venue is usually coordinated at a wide variety of sites, many of which may be judged as marginal or unsuitable for the inclusion of disabled clientele. By becoming familiar with government guidelines, regulations, and procedures, Extension can affirm their commitment to all citizens by improving facilities, marketing, decision making, faculty awareness, resources, policies, and evaluation.

David McBreen
Assistant Professor
West Virginia University
Morgantown, West Virginia

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which became law in January 1992, has been described by the media and politicians as the most sweeping social legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its provisions are so broad as to be practically elusive. Indeed, even its proponents admit that the law is somewhat amorphous, particularly with regard to its definition of "disability." The National Council on Disability--the federal agency in charge of determining the Act's implementation--defines disability as "any known physical or mental limitation." In light of this generality, the former Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Evan J. Kamp, Jr. predicted in July 1992 that the following year would bring a 20% increase in complaints of civil-rights violations, or 15,000 new cases (Kilborn, 1992). In fact, by March 1993, more than 9,000 legal complaints had been filed under the Act, "an unprecedented number in the history of civil-rights legislation" (Rockwell, 1993). As with all new laws, individuals and corporate groups pursue protection or favor. Albert C. Eisenberg, senior director of the American Institute of Architects, says "I get a couple of calls every day from architects around the country; most of them are trying to figure out how to take advantage of the law" (Spayd, 1992).

The essential conditions of the law are "reasonable public accommodation" and "undue burden," both of which are so broadly defined that even attorneys are finding them difficult to specify. However, providing educational services is clearly defined in the Act as necessary to accommodation for the disabled. Administrators who are responsible for programs to include students with disabilities may find that past actions taken to comply with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 are no longer adequate. Under the new law, providing inclusive services for disabled students may still be expensive, potentially subject to litigation, and perhaps judged evasive by the provider's claim of "undue burden." For better or for worse, the determination of suitability or unsuitability will ultimately rest with the courts. In fact, the EEOC's regulations concerning the ADA are deliberately unspecific, by their own admission, because the Commission believes that decisions can be made only on a case-by- case basis, i.e., court cases. At this juncture, the courts have not defined "reasonable accommodation" or "undue burden." The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that governmental and quasi-governmental agencies have written regulations pursuant to the titles of the law, i.e., the EEOC, the Department of Education, the Department of Transportation, the Agricultural Department, and the Justice Department, to name a few.

Keep in mind that the enterprises of Cooperative Extension programs may be particularly vulnerable because their venue is usually coordinated at a wide variety of sites in a panoply of local missions, many of which could easily be judged as marginal or unsuitable for the inclusion of disabled clientele. An off- campus location--perhaps a place of local business, a church, or a public library, for example, may not live up to the full expectations of the law, even though these locations may be covered by it. Two basic questions emerge: (a) What are the responsibilities of Cooperative Extension agents and administrators in the programming of services in this area of institutional higher learning? and, (b) How can you ensure that your attempts to provide inclusion meet with the spirit of the Act?

Findings and Intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act

In passing the law, Congress found the following (U.S. Congress, 1990):

  1. "43 million Americans have one or more physical or mental disabilities, and that this number is increasing as the population grows older."

  2. Discrimination against individuals with disabilities persists in such "critical areas as employment, housing, public accommodations, education, transportation, communication, recreation, institutionalization, health services, voting, and access to public services."

  3. Individuals with disabilities "continually encounter various forms of discrimination, including outright intentional exclusion, the discriminatory effects of architectural, transportation, and communication barriers, over-protective rules and policies, failure to make modifications to existing facilities and practices, exclusionary qualifications standards and criteria, segregation, and relegation to lesser services, programs, activities, benefits, jobs, or other opportunities."

  4. Census data, national polls, and other studies "have documented that people with disabilities, as a group, occupy an inferior status in our society, and are severely disadvantaged socially, vocationally, economically, and educationally."

The Act states that its purpose is to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities, to provide enforceable standards, to ensure that the federal government plays a central role in enforcing these standards, to use Congressional authority to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment, and to regulate commerce as a direct means of addressing discrimination against people with disabilities.

Initiatives of the West Virginia University (WVU)
Extension Service

At WVU, the leadership moved swiftly to develop a comprehensive approach to the provisions of the Act. Top Extension Service administrators first attended a training seminar offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to familiarize themselves with government guidelines, regulations, and procedures. Significant steps were then taken to ensure not only that the legal provisions of the Act were adhered to, but also to affirm the university's commitment to all of the state's citizens:

  • Extension Service leaders became directly involved with the development and conduct of training workshops for their 425 employees. Their involvement conveyed the importance of the ADA precepts.

  • ADA coordinators were appointed in each county to be the local authorities on disability issues. These people were trained to be conversant in ADA issues and accommodations and to recognize the significance of the legislation in meeting the needs of the citizenry.

  • A rapid-response channel of communications was clearly established to enable local agents to make decisions about issues of accommodation, with the guidance and approval of the central administration. These agents were granted immediate phone access to the primary decision maker.

  • Before the program was adopted state-wide, it was pilot tested in one of the 55 counties. An audit of facilities and activities was conducted in this county to determine the levels of compliance and to ascertain the degree of awareness and concern on the part of the agents.

  • From the pilot test came a plan for implementation. Extension Services' staff provided definitions, policies, training schedules, and agendas. This plan was distributed to all of the staff for comments and action. Lines of authority were clearly delineated and procedures were expressly enumerated.

  • A public notification strategy was adopted that would allow disabled participants to make known in the most efficacious manner the kind of accommodation they would need to be included in the typical classroom milieu. The sine qua non of this policy is communication at all levels within the Extension organization and with the disabled constituent groups.

  • Finally, the WVU Extension Service distributed a self- evaluation and compliance form to each of its agents to document their efforts to meet the spirit and the letter of the law. Based on USDA guidelines, this evaluation form forces agents to realize the extent and impact of the law and to make the necessary accommodations, often in advance of the fact.

These initiatives have given a firm and purposeful direction to the WVU Extension Service's attempts not only to comply with the law, but also to live up to its historical mission. Implicit in the program is an awareness that perfection is impossible, however much desired; but the striving for it to assure equality is a fundamental requirement of the human condition.

Key Points for Cooperative Extension Agents
and Administrators to Consider


The facilities modifications required under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 guidelines may not be adequate under the new law. Begin an audit of existing access strategies to determine what more needs to be done. Remember that off-campus locations may not live up to current expectations. (For Extension agents, this is a critical issue.) There are many unanswered questions! According to the ADA mandate, new buildings designed after January 1993 must meet more stringent standards than those that are simply being modified. But what role will Extension play in the design decisions? Partners in cooperative programs may have to decide on a case-by-case basis which of its members will accept the primary liability.


The ADA requires that communication with people with disabilities be equal in all respects to communication with other groups. Assess your marketing strategies to ensure that advertising and recruiting are directed to people with disabilities. Closed-captioning in TV ads and Braille publications, along with other ideas, may need to be considered.

Decision Making

Administrators of off-campus programs who previously had local autonomy may find that the expenditures and adjustments to accommodate the disabled student are beyond their budget and authority. Local constituent-group representatives--AIDS awareness organizations, hearing-impaired advocates, and protectors of the blind--will probably have to be included in the decision-making process. Guidance will likely come from central administration about how to deal with these parochial demands, about how the funds will be made available, and about the efficacy of the program. Because the federal government has declared its intention to oversee the law (regardless of state initiatives), seek policy guidelines from your institution's highest management levels.


Awareness of the special needs of the disabled will be a requirement for all faculty. Disabled participants will have the right to flexible schedules, modified exams and training materials, and even note-takers or interpreters. For those unable to travel, video instruction with its unique aspects may become a requirement, and faculty must be prepared to develop proficiency in the medium. Inservice training for faculty may be needed to heighten their sensitivity and to make them aware of alternative delivery systems.


Special equipment, such as telecommunications devices for the hearing-impaired or Braille PC's for the sight-impaired, may require new or untried fund-raising efforts. Cooperative Extension administrators, agents, and other personnel designated to be responsible for the provisions of the Act should investigate government grants, community participation, or special fund-raising events to help defray the cost and to heighten awareness of the plight of the disabled and of the need to include them in the mainstream educational process.


All of your institution's policies concerning admission, grading, discipline, and general access must be reviewed with an eye to accommodating the disabled student (or faculty member). Keep in mind that the spirit of the new law is inclusion, not segregation. Separate but equal is no longer acceptable unless you can prove an "undue burden."


Establish a methodology for overview and for continuous monitoring of policies and procedures dealing with disabled constituents. Keep abreast of the outcomes of court cases related to the ADA and be flexible, ready to adjust rapidly to court-mandated criteria, and anticipative of consequent legislative or judicial actions.


Finally, Cooperative Extension personnel should look upon the Americans Disabilities Act as a vital part of education's societal role. An awareness of the needs of the disabled and the opportunity to help them to be included and productive is a satisfying and socially-valuable goal. Furthermore, the more you know about the issue, the less you will have to fear recriminations or litigation.


Kilborn, P. T. (1992, July 19). Big change likely as law bans bias toward disabled. The New York Times, section 1, pp. 1, 24.

Rockwell, Jr., L. H. (1993, July 7). Wheelchairs at third base. National Review, pp. 47-50.

Spayd, Liz (1992, January 24). Business faces $2 billion overhaul to lower barriers. The Washington Post, p. A21.

United States Congress. (1990). Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Public Law 101-336. Washington, DC: 101st Congress.