442 U.S. 397 (1979), 78-711, Southeastern Community College v. Davis

Docket Nº:No. 78-711
Citation:442 U.S. 397, 99 S.Ct. 2361, 60 L.Ed.2d 980
Party Name:Southeastern Community College v. Davis
Case Date:June 11, 1979
Court:United States Supreme Court

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442 U.S. 397 (1979)

99 S.Ct. 2361, 60 L.Ed.2d 980

Southeastern Community College



No. 78-711

United States Supreme Court

June 11, 1979

Argued April 23, 1979




Respondent, who suffers from a serious hearing disability and who seeks to be trained as a registered nurse, was denied [99 S.Ct. 2363] admission to the nursing program of petitioner Southeastern Community College, a state institution that receives federal funds. An audiologist's report indicated that, even with a hearing aid, respondent cannot understand speech directed to her except through lip-reading, and petitioner rejected respondent's application for admission because it believed her hearing disability made it impossible for her to participate safely in the normal clinical training program or to care safely for patients. Respondent then filed suit against petitioner in Federal District Court, alleging, inter alia, a violation of § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against an "otherwise qualified handicapped individual" in federally funded programs "solely by reason of his handicap." The District Court entered judgment in favor of petitioner, confirming the audiologist's findings and concluding that respondent's handicap prevented her from safely performing in both her training program and her proposed profession. On this basis, the court held that respondent was not an "otherwise qualified handicapped individual" protected by § 504, and that the decision to exclude her was not discriminatory within the meaning of § 504. Although not disputing the District Court's factfindings, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that, in light of intervening regulations of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), § 504 required petitioner to reconsider respondent's application for admission without regard to her hearing ability, and that, in determining whether respondent was "otherwise qualified," petitioner must confine its inquiry to her "academic and technical qualifications." The Court of Appeals also suggested that § 504 required "affirmative conduct" by petitioner to modify its program to accommodate the disabilities of applicants.

Held: There was no violation of § 504 when petitioner concluded that respondent did not qualify for admission to its program. Nothing in the language or history of § 504 limits the freedom of an educational institution to require reasonable physical qualifications for admission to

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a clinical training program. Nor has there been any showing in this case that any action short of a substantial change in petitioner's program would render unreasonable the qualifications it imposed. Pp. 405-414.

(a) The terms of § 504 indicate that mere possession of a handicap is not a permissible ground for assuming an inability to function in a particular context, but do not mean that a person need not meet legitimate physical requirements in order to be "otherwise qualified." An otherwise qualified person is one who is able to meet all of a program's requirements in spite of his handicap. HEW's regulations reinforce, rather than contradict, this conclusion. Pp. 405-407.

(b) Section 504 does not compel petitioner to undertake affirmative action that would dispense with the need for effective oral communication, such as by giving respondent individual supervision whenever she attends patients directly or by dispensing with certain required courses for respondent and training her to perform some but not all of the tasks a registered nurse is licensed to perform. On the record, it appears unlikely that respondent could benefit from any affirmative action that HEW regulations reasonably could be interpreted as requiring with regard to "modifications" of post-secondary educational programs to accommodate handicapped persons and the provision of "auxiliary aids" such as sign language interpreters. Moreover, an interpretation of the regulations that required the extensive modifications necessary to include respondent in the nursing program would raise grave doubts about their validity. Neither the language, purpose, nor history of § 504 reveals an intent to impose an affirmative action obligation on all recipients of federal funds, and thus even if HEW has attempted to create such an obligation itself, it lacks the authority to do so. Pp. 407-412.

(c) The line between a lawful refusal to extend affirmative action and illegal discrimination against handicapped persons [99 S.Ct. 2364] will not always be clear, and situations may arise where a refusal to modify an existing program to accommodate the needs of a disabled person amounts to discrimination against the handicapped. In this case, however, petitioner's unwillingness to make major adjustments in its nursing program does not constitute such discrimination. Uncontroverted testimony established that the purpose of petitioner's program was to train persons who could serve the nursing profession in all customary ways, and this type of purpose, far from reflecting any animus against handicapped individuals, is shared by many, if not most, of the institutions that train persons to render professional service. Section 504 imposes no requirement upon an educational institution to lower or to effect substantial

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modifications of standards to accommodate a handicapped person. Pp. 412-413.

574 F.2d 1158, reversed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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POWELL, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents a matter of first impression for this Court: Whether § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against an "otherwise qualified handicapped individual" in federally funded programs "solely by reason of his handicap," forbids professional schools from imposing physical qualifications for admission to their clinical training programs.


Respondent, who suffers from a serious hearing disability, seeks to be trained as a registered nurse. During the 1973-1974 academic year, she was enrolled in the College Parallel program of Southeastern Community College, a state institution that receives federal funds. Respondent hoped to progress to Southeastern's Associate Degree Nursing program, completion of which would make her eligible for state certification as a registered nurse. In the course of her application to the nursing program, she was interviewed by a member of the nursing faculty. It became apparent that respondent had difficulty understanding questions asked, and on inquiry, she acknowledged a history of hearing problems and dependence on a hearing aid. She was advised to consult an audiologist.

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On the basis of an examination at Duke University Medical Center, respondent was diagnosed as having a "bilateral, sensori-neural hearing loss." App 127a. A change in her hearing aid was recommended, as a result of which it was expected that she would be able to detect sounds "almost as well as a person would who has normal hearing." Id. at 127a-128a. But this improvement would not mean that she could discriminate among sounds sufficiently to understand normal spoken speech. Her lip-reading skills would remain necessary for effective communication:

While wearing the hearing aid, she is well aware of gross sounds occurring in the listening environment. However, she can only be responsible for speech spoken to her, when the talker gets her attention and allows her to look directly at the talker.

Id. at 128a.

Southeastern next consulted Mary McRee, Executive Director of the North Carolina Board of Nursing. On the basis of the audiologist's report, McRee recommended that respondent not be admitted to the nursing program. In McRee's view, respondent's hearing disability made it unsafe for her to practice as a nurse.1 In addition, it would be impossible for [99 S.Ct. 2365] respondent to participate safely in the normal clinical training program, and those modifications that would be necessary to enable safe participation would prevent her from

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realizing the benefits of the program: "To adjust patient learning experiences in keeping with [respondent's] hearing limitations could, in fact, be the same as denying her full learning to meet the objectives of your nursing programs." Id. at 132a-133a.

After respondent was notified that she was not qualified for nursing study because of her hearing disability, she requested reconsideration of the decision. The entire nursing staff of Southeastern was assembled, and McRee again was consulted. McRee repeated her conclusion that, on the basis of the available evidence, respondent "has hearing limitations which could interfere with her safely caring for patients." Id. at 139a. Upon further deliberation, the staff voted to deny respondent admission.

Respondent then filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, alleging both a violation of § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 7 Stat. 394, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (1976 ed., Supp. III),2

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and a denial of equal protection and due process. After a bench trial, the District Court entered judgment in favor of Southeastern. 424 F.Supp. 1341 (1976). It confirmed the findings of the audiologist that, even with a hearing aid, respondent cannot understand speech directed to her except through lip-reading, and further found:

[I]n many situations, such as an operation room intensive care unit or post-natal care unit, all doctors and nurses wear surgical masks which would make lip-reading impossible. Additionally, in many situations, a Registered Nurse would be required to instantly follow the physician's instructions concerning procurement of various types of instruments and drugs where the physician would be unable...

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