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Students with Disabilities & Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (commonly referred to as Section 504) is a federal law designed to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. Those programs include public school districts, institutions of higher education, and other state and local education agencies. To qualify under Section 504, a student must have a disability and that disability must limit a major life function. The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments of 2008 (ADA) broadened the definition of disability in the ADA as well as in Section 504.

How does Section 504 define disability and major life functions?

Under Section 504, disability is defined broadly. A student is determined to have a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment affecting a body system.

This impairment or disability must substantially limit one or more major life activities. These activities include such things as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, eating, sleeping, standing, lifting, bending, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and more.

When determining whether a student has a physical or mental impairment, the school district must not consider the improvement of a disability caused by a “mitigating measure” such as medication, hearing aids, prosthetics, mobility devices, or other means. The language on mitigating measures was added in the ADA Amendments Act of 2008.

Does Section 504 require schools to do evaluations?

Yes. The school must conduct an evaluation to determine if the student has a disability as defined under this act. Based on documented information from varied sources, decisions must be made by a group of school personnel who are knowledgeable about the child, the meaning of the data, and the placement options.

Section 504 Flow Chart

How does a school determine if a child is eligible for services either under IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or under Section 504? The adapted Minnesota Department of Education chart below gives you an idea of how the two processes work.

View this chart as a PDF

Does the disability substantially limit one or more major life activities? Under Section 504, disability is defined broadly. A student is determined to have a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment affecting a body system. The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) defines a physical or mental impairment as “any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; genito-urinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine; or any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.”

This impairment or disability must substantially limit one or more major life activities. These activities include such things as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, eating, sleeping, standing, lifting, bending, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and more. The legislation also states that the school district must not consider the improvement caused by a “mitigating measure” such as medication, hearing aids, prosthetics, mobility devices, or other means when determining whether a student has a physical or mental impairment.

Determine an education plan comparable to that provided to non-disabled students: School districts are required to provide students with disabilities appropriate educational services designed to meet the individual needs of students as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met.

Accommodations: When a child is determined to be eligible for services under Section 504, the school must eliminate barriers to his or her access to full participation in school activities, including the general education curriculum. Barriers often are eliminated by providing accommodations to the student. Accommodations must give the child meaningful equal opportunities, consider his or her functional limitations, and offer different ways to show what he or she knows. Examples of accommodations include testing in a quiet room, preferential seating, digital textbooks, tailored homework assignments, or a sign language interpreter for a track meet.

What happens if my child is eligible?

Section 504 requires a school district to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to each eligible student in its jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability. Under Section 504, an appropriate education for a student with a disability could consist of education in a regular classroom, education in a regular classroom with supplementary services, or special education and related services. A child who has a disability but does not qualify for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) may still be entitled to services or accommodations under Section 504.

The school must provide a plan for providing reasonable accommodations and other services so a child may participate fully in the school setting. Parents are usually invited to a meeting where the plan is developed. Putting the plan in writing is an effective way to document what services the school will be providing.

What are accommodations under Section 504?

When the school determines that a child is eligible for services under Section 504, the school must eliminate barriers to his or her access to full participation in school activities, including the general education curriculum. The school can often eliminate barriers by providing accommodations for a student. Accommodations must give the child meaningful equal opportunities, consider his or her functional limitations, and offer alternative methods of performance. Examples of accommodations include testing in a quiet room, preferential seating, digital textbooks, tailored homework assignments, and a sign language interpreter for a track meet.

What responsibilities do schools have under Section 504?

To provide assurance that they do not discriminate, schools must designate an employee to ensure compliance, provide grievance procedures, identify and locate all children with disabilities who receive education within the district, and provide notice of the district’s Section 504 responsibilities and procedural safeguards to parents.

The district also must give parents a copy of procedural safeguards within the school district. Procedural safeguards include the parents’ right to:

  • receive notice of action regarding identification, evaluation, and placement of their child with a disability
  • review records
  • request an impartial hearing
  • have a review procedure
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Learn more

To learn more about this subject or to request a Section 504 evaluation, parents are encouraged to call their school district’s Section 504 coordinator. Parents may also request a copy of the district’s 504 policy including grievance procedures if they do not agree with the district’s implementation of Section 504.

 

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