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  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

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Background

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil rights law that prohibits recipients of federal funding from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. As it relates to public education, the law states that a school cannot place a student in segregated classes or facilities “solely by reason of her or his disability.” Students with disabilities must be given the same opportunities to participate in academic, nonacademic and extracurricular activities as their non-disabled peers. This law applies to public elementary and secondary schools, as well as other education entities. United States Department of Health and Human Services logo

Under Section 504, students with disabilities may receive accommodations and modifications as well as supplementary aids and services to ensure that their individual educational needs are met as adequately as those of non-disabled students.  Under Section 504, children with disabilities must be educated with their non-disabled peers "to the maximum extent appropriate." Students may only be placed in separate classrooms or special education courses when, after an appropriate evaluation, it is determined that “the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

All students who qualify for special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) are also covered by the provisions of Section 504.  However, not all students who qualify for Section 504 are eligible for IDEA services.  That's because Section 504's definition of “a student with a disability” is broader than the IDEA's definition and not limited to specific disability categories.

When should parents ask for Section 504 services?

Section 504 is the “umbrella” civil rights law covering persons who have a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.”  Under Section 504, “major life activities” include caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, reading, writing, calculating math problems, concentrating, interacting with others, learning and working.

Parents typically ask for services under Section 504 when: 

  • their child has a chronic medical condition, such as asthma or diabetes, that is not covered by the IDEA or
  • their child has a disability covered by IDEA, such as ADHD or a mild learning disability, but who does not require IDEA services to benefit from their education. 

Often students protected under Section 504 have “hidden disabilities”, which include low vision, poor hearing, heart disease, or a chronic illness, such as cancer. The U.S. Dept. of Education (ED) has a pamphlet available that discusses The Civil Rights of Students with Hidden Disabilities and cites specific examples of how the educational needs of these students can be addressed under Section 504.

A student who uses a wheelchair, but who has no neurological impairment, is a good example of a student who may best benefit from their education under the provisions of Section 504.  Section 504 would require the school to provide accessible transportation to and from school, as well as necessary accommodations in the classroom and the building.  Accommodations could include using a tape recorder to take notes to compensate for writing difficulties and extra time to get from one class to the next.  This student may not need the more comprehensive special education services provided under IDEA to benefit from his or her education.

Section 504 and IDEA: How do they differ?

Like IDEA, Section 504 requires identification, evaluation, provision of appropriate services, parental notification, an individualized plan, and procedural safeguards. However, many requirements under Section 504 differ from those under IDEA.  For instance, rather than an ARD committee developing an IEP for the student, a 504 committee made up of persons knowledgeable about the child will develop a 504 Plan.

While a parent must be notified, parental consent is not required for a student to be evaluated or to receive a change of placement under Section 504.  Parents should be aware that school districts have flexibility in how they develop and carry out their Section 504 policies and procedures, and the procedural safeguards under Section 504 are not as stringent as those under the IDEA.

Because it is a civil rights law, technical assistance and enforcement of Section 504 is provided through the Office for Civil Rights (OCR): IDEA issues are addressed by the state education agency.

For more information about Section 504 on your child’s campus, ask the campus principal or your special education director who the 504 coordinator is and schedule a time to talk to that person.  Each school district has a 504 coordinator who can answer questions about the availability of services and how the process works. 

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