Education Law

Alcoholism, Drug Addiction, and Special Education

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Rehabilitation Act and Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) are federal laws that help children with disabilities get an appropriate education. But what's a "disability?" These laws can treat alcoholism and drug addiction as disabilities. 

ADA and Rehabilitation Act

Generally, these laws make it illegal to treat people with disabilities differently than people without them.

Title II of the ADA makes discrimination against persons with disabilities illegal when it comes to "public entity" services, programs or activities. This includes your state or local government's schools. 

Title III of the ADA applies to anyone owning, leasing or operating a place of "public accommodation." It's illegal to deny those with disabilities full and equal enjoyment of the facility's goods and services. Many private schools may qualify as a "public accommodation." Schools with religious affiliation aren't included.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act applies to any program or activity that receives federal financial assistance. Almost all public school receive federal funds, so this law applies.


Both the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act define the term "disability" in the same way. An individual with a disability is someone who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limiting one or more major life activities; or
  • Has a record of such impairment; or
  • Is regarded as having such impairment

A physical impairment is any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement or anatomical loss that affects things like his speech-related or reproductive systems, among other things.

A mental impairment is any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation or mental illness.

Substantially limits means that, in comparison to someone not disabled, you can't perform, or are significantly limited in performing, a major life activity. Major life activities are things an average person can do with little or no difficulty. Examples: Sitting, standing and learning.

Record of impairment protects persons with a history of a disability, such as cancer and heart disease. It also covers a mental illness that has been cured, controlled by medication or therapy, or is in remission.

Regarded as having a disability protects persons who are "perceived" as having disabilities. For example, a child can't be barred from attending a covered school because the school staff believes that he has HIV.

Alcoholism and Drug Addiction

Alcoholism and drug addiction are disabilities under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act. That's so, however, only if it substantially limits the student's ability to learn or attend school (a major life activity).

Generally, a student who's addicted to drugs, but no longer using them, is covered. For example, a student can't be expelled for attending support group meetings. She may have rights to special school scheduling so she can get treatment or therapy.

However, schools can discipline an alcoholic or addicted student who's still using. Schools can have rules against extracurricular activity participation if a student's using alcohol or illegal drugs. Or a rules on expulsion. Rules can be enforced if a student's still using.


Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) gives children between the ages of 3 and 21 with certain disabilities the right to special education services. The IDEA lists covered disabilities. Alcoholism and drug addiction aren't on it. Part B help is unlikely for an alcoholic or addicted student.

However, under Part C of the IDEA, the federal government gives states money for early intervention programs for children up to 3 years old. A child may get IDEA services for a covered disability caused by a parent's alcoholism or drug addiction.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My daughter is a recovering alcoholic. Her school won't adjust her schedule for counseling appointments. It says the school counselor can provide services without schedule changes. Can the school do that?
  • My son's a special ed student, and a teacher found drugs in his locker. We think someone put them there. Can he be suspended? Does the school have to prove the drugs are his?
  • I think my son's facing discrimination at school based on a rumor that I'm an alcoholic. I'm not. Is this an ADA violation?
Have a special education question?
Get answers from local attorneys.
It's free and easy.
Ask a Lawyer

Get Professional Help

Find a Special Education lawyer
Practice Area:
Zip Code:
How It Works
  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Connect with local attorneys

Talk to an attorney

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you