What you need to know about ADHD and your legal rights when you turn 18

Editor’s note: legal information in this article provided by former Edge Executive Director and nationally recognized author and lecturer on special education law, Robert Tudisco.

Going off to college and becoming independent is difficult for everyone. There’s so much to be learned about being out on one’s own. It’s a very exciting time and most kids are pretty excited to turn 18 and are eager to take on a new level of responsibility. If you have ADHD there are two very important legal changes to pay special attention to when you turn 18:

  • IDEA disability protections change
  • FERPA (Family education Rights and Privacy Act) transfers privacy rights from your parent to you

Legal protections and disabilities in college

The laws that protect students with disabilities are not the same when you move on to college and graduate school. Before you graduate from high school, if you have a disability such as ADHD you are protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA). You also are protected under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504). IDEA includes a concept known as “Child Find”. Child Find makes school districts responsible to seek out, evaluate and provide services for students with special needs.

When you turn 18 (or leave high school), the only protections that remain are those found in Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). IDEA and Child Find no longer applies. While still guaranteeing that you can’t be discriminated against based upon your disabilities, it is now up to you to come forward, provide documentation of your disability, and request appropriate accommodations.

In college, therefore, a working knowledge of the law, an understanding of your disability and an ability to communicate your needs to your school and instructors is crucial. Unfortunately you may not be prepared for this new advocacy responsibility because you haven’t had a chance to take a meaningful part in the advocacy process during high school. Why? Many parents have tried to protect you by taking the position that your disability should be a closely guarded secret to keep from the rest of the world. Other parents may not have involved you, their child, in working with the school, identifying your own needs and seeking services.

FERPA and Privacy Rights

Another legal area that changes with the move to college is your right to privacy. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was enacted to ensure that parents have access to their children’s educational records and to protect the privacy of students by limiting access to these records without parental consent. Both the access to your records and the restriction of that access is controlled by parents while you are underage. The privacy rights conferred by FERPA, however, automatically transfer to you when you turn 18 or you begin attending a post secondary institution, at any age. (The only exception being when you are still declared a dependent for tax purposes.)

When you become an adult or leave high school, you have control over the access to your educational records and not your parents. This sounds great, right? But if your parents have been in charge of advocating for you with your school, they will no longer be able to help you without you being directly involved. And unless you’ve already been involved with advocating for yourself you may not know where to start or even which records to access.

What can you do now to become a better advocate for yourself?

  • Educate yourself on the law. A great site to find out more about the American Disabilities Act and its impact on you is Wright’s Law. http://wrightslaw.com/info/sec504.index.htm And stop back here at the Edge blog next week where we’ll go over a list of disability related terms you should be familiar with.
  • If you are still in high school, get involved. Ask to see your 504 plan or IEP. Talk with your parents about what they’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t for advocating for you.
    Get copies of your evaluations and review them with your parents before you go to college so you have documentation ready when you need proof.
  • Find out who the contact person in your school is before you attend. If you can’t figure it out, ask for help. A coach can be a great resource for helping you figure out how to navigate the system and to learn to advocate yourself. You don’t have to do it all by yourself!


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