Legal Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid


State and federal governments know that people who have a disability sometimes need extra protections or specific laws to address their unique situations.  This has resulted in people with disabilities having many protections in a variety of areas of their lives. Here is a summary of some areas with special protections of which you should be aware.


The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law that forbids discrimination against people with disabilities.  Here is some information about FHA:

  • FHA applies to housing that is used as a residence, including houses, apartments, condominiums, and even nursing homes.
  • FHA does not apply to transient stays at motels or hospitals.  
  • FHA requires landlords to make "reasonable accommodations," or changes to their policies for persons with a disability.  The landlord must make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, if the changes are necessary for the person with a disability to have equal opportunity to use and enjoy the rental unit.
    • If there was a no-pet policy, a person who needs a service animal to help with a disability should be allowed to have that animal live with the person.
    • The landlord must also allow a tenant to make reasonable modifications for physical changes in a dwelling at the tenant's expense, like adding a ramp for wheelchair access or widening doors. The tenant may have to remove the modification at the tenant's expense.
    • Also any “new” housing (which was first occupied after March 13, 1991) must meet certain standards of ease of access.
  • FHA does not apply to rental units in a building with four or fewer units, if the owner lives in one of the units.

Under FHA, a disability is anything that substantially limits a person's ability to take part in at least one major life activity. “Major life activities” are things like walking, caring for yourself, managing your money, etc.  It is illegal to discriminate against someone who appears to be disabled.  So if some people are wrong in believing a person is mentally ill, a landlord could not deny that person an apartment just because that person appears to be ill.  Even if the person trying to rent an apartment is not mentally ill, the landlord would still be treating him differently because the landlord thinks of the person as being disabled. And that's against the law.

Fair housing rules can be complicated. Tenants who have questions about how these laws apply to them should talk to a lawyer.


Several federal laws provide rights to students with disabilities. The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that children with disabilities be given a free appropriate public education. A free appropriate public education includes three things:

  1. Specialized education to meet the child's needs;
  2. Related services (ex: transportation, speech therapy, physical therapy or counseling,); and
  3. Supplementary aids and services which will help the child function better in regular classrooms.

To help meet the specialized education requirement, the teachers and parents can put together an “Individualized Education Program,” usually shortened to “IEP.”  This is the plan the school will use to educate the child in light of that child’s limitations and special needs. The IEP is reviewed at least once per year.  The parents (and if appropriate, the student) are supposed to be full partners in developing the IEP.  If there are problems with the IEP, the parents can consult with the Superintendent of the school district and Iowa Department of Education.

Student Loan Disability Discharge

The average college graduate has $20,000 in student loan debt.  This debt can be especially hard to repay by students who become disabled and cannot work.  Fortunately, there may be options in this situation.  One option for people with federal student loans is a “disability discharge.”  If someone is totally and permanently disabled, it is possible to discharge federal student loans.  A discharge will get rid of the federal student loan debt.  If the loans are discharged, they do not have to be paid back.  There are two tests to meet to see if a person qualifies:

The person must be totally disabled to get a disability discharge.  The person also must be permanently disabled.  This is defined as a “condition that keeps you from working or earning money because of an injury or illness that is expected to continue indefinitely or results in death.”  A doctor must certify that this is true.  Only MD's or DO's can make this certification.  A physician's assistant or nurse practitioner cannot.  Receiving Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income does not automatically mean that a person will receive a disability discharge of the loans.  The Department of Education uses its own definition of disability.

A former student who may be eligible needs to get a copy of the Loan Discharge request and fill it out. It is available online at, (Look in the "forms" link in the “Resources” section), To request a TPD discharge application by phone or email, call seven days a week at 888.303.7818 from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. (Eastern) or email at


There are other laws which protect persons with disabilities including the Americans with Disabilities Act which covers employment and public accommodations. Other laws apply to organizations that receive federal funding. In addition to protections under federal law, there are also protections under state law that are similar to many of those under federal law. Any person who believes he or she has been discriminated against due to a disability in any area of law may contact the Iowa Civil Rights Commission toll-free at 800-457-4416.  They will investigate your complaint.  If they think it's necessary, they will file a lawsuit against the provider themselves. They do not have to do this, however.  If they do not file a lawsuit, they can provide a right to sue letter that will allow the complainant to contact a private attorney to file a lawsuit in court.

Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans. 
To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:call 800-532-1275. 
Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161 or 
apply online at
If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website   A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.
*As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice. 
Last Review and Update: Nov 28, 2022
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