Introduction to Section 504

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Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or Section 504, is a federal law that protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination. The law applies to all local, state, and private agencies or organizations that receive federal funds, which includes traditional public schools and public charter schools. Under the law, people with disabilities cannot be excluded from the programs and services these agencies and organizations provide based on their disability. People with disabilities must be given services and supports that allow them the same access that people without disabilities have.

Which students qualify for protection under Section 504?

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Eligibility for protection under Section 504 is broader than eligibility for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. To be eligible under Section 504, a student must have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The law also protects people from disability discrimination if there is a record that they have a disability or they are regarded as having a disability, even when they don’t actually have a disability.

The definition of physical or mental impairment includes most every part of the body, including conditions affecting the skin, bones, brain, lungs, heart, and other organs, as well as mental conditions such as intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses, and learning disabilities.

Substantially limits is not defined in the law and must be decided on a case-by-case basis. However, the law does make clear that mitigating measures, or ways that a person has tried to accommodate their disability, cannot be taken into consideration when determining whether a person is protected by Section 504. For example, use of hearing aids, wheelchairs, technology, or personal assistants cannot be considered when determining whether a person’s disability substantially limits his or her functioning.

Major life activities are also defined very broadly and include things like taking care of yourself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. A student’s disability does not have to impact learning to qualify for services and supports at school under Section 504. For example, students with physical or medical disabilities could receive services from a nurse, accommodations to a school’s medication policy, or supports in the lunchroom or restroom, even if their ability to learn wasn’t impacted at all by their disability.

What is a free appropriate public education under Section 504?

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Section 504 requires all public elementary and secondary schools to provide eligible students with disabilities a free appropriate public education, or FAPE. FAPE under section 504 means that eligible students must be provided the same access to an education that students without disabilities receive.

The accommodations students need under Section 504 must be free. The school cannot charge a student or his or her family to provide services or supports, unless they would charge a similar fee to the family of students without disabilities. For example, schools can charge students with disabilities the same annual registration and book fees that they charge for all students to attend school, but they cannot charge a blind student more for providing an e-reader or a book in Braille or charge a deaf student more for providing a sign language interpreter during the school day.

Further, the services and supports must be appropriate, or based on the child’s unique needs for accessing an education, not what the school provides to all children or what is convenient for the school. In addition, the student must be educated in the same classroom as students without disabilities, unless the school can show that the services and supports the child needs cannot be provided in a regular classroom.

What is a 504 Plan?

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Nothing in Section 504 actually requires schools to create a written plan of the services and supports that an individual student needs for equal access to an education. However, most schools do create a written plan, typically called a 504 Plan. The 504 Plan identifies the exact services and supports that the school will provide to an individual student under Section 504.

The law does require schools to complete an evaluation of anyone who needs, or is believed to need, services and supports under Section 504. The evaluation should assess the student in all areas of need, and the evaluation results should be used to determine what services and supports a student needs. An evaluation must be completed before a student first receives services or supports under Section 504 and before any significant change to a student’s services or supports. The law also says that students who are receiving services and supports under Section 504 must be reevaluated “periodically,” but it doesn’t say how often.

When deciding what services a student needs, the school should consider the evaluation results, as well as teacher recommendations, the student’s physical abilities, social and cultural background, and adaptive behavior. The law requires a “group” of people to make decisions about the student’s services, including individuals who know the child, who understand evaluations, and who know what services and supports are available. Though a child’s parent obviously “knows” his or her child, the law doesn’t specifically require that parents be a part of the group making decisions under Section 504.

What procedural safeguards are available for parents under Section 504?

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Section 504 requires that notice be provided, but it doesn’t say to whom, when, or what it must include. Section 504 also requires that parents have an opportunity to review their child’s records, but does not provide a timeline or specify which records a parent has the right to review. Section 504 requires schools to offer parents an impartial hearing, with right to counsel, when they disagree with a school’s decision about their child’s services and supports under Section 504, but it doesn’t provide any additional guidance about how long parents have to make complaints, what they can make complaints about, what the rules are at the hearing, how long parents can expect to wait for a decision, or what parents should do if they are unhappy with the hearing decision.

How are Section 504 and the IDEA different?

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The key difference between Section 504 and the IDEA is that Section 504 only requires schools to offer students with disabilities equal access to the education provided to all students, while the IDEA requires schools to educate students with disabilities and ensure that they make progress and achieve their goals. Only students who have one of the thirteen disabilities listed in the IDEA and whose disability affects the child’s progress at school qualify for services under the IDEA. Though more students may be eligible for services and supports under Section 504, students receive more services and have more rights under the IDEA. The procedural safeguards available under the IDEA ensure that students and their families are actively included in the process of deciding whether children will receive special education services and what kinds of services they will receive. In particular, the IDEA provides protections for students with disabilities who are being disciplined that Section 504 does not. Though both statutes ensure that schools cannot discriminate, or exclude, students with disabilities for behavior that is caused by their disability, the IDEA requires schools to take proactive measures to address behavior so that students avoid being disciplined in the first place. The IDEA also requires schools to provide services so that students can make progress on the goals in their individualized education programs, even if they have been suspended or expelled from school for more than ten days.

Students with disabilities who qualify for services under the IDEA are also eligible for protection from discrimination under Section 504. If students with disabilities are not eligible for services under the IDEA, then they may still be able to receive some services and supports to ensure equal access to an education under Section 504.

Where can I get more information?

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