How Section 504 Helps Students With Physical or Mental Disabilities at School

Section 504 requires schools to provide accommodations to children with disabilities.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

"Section 504" requires schools provide children with mental and physical disabilities the same access to educational programs and services that other children have. Section 504 refers to a section of the federal Rehabilitation Act (29 U.S.C. § 794), a disability rights law separate from IDEA. Section 504 requires all agencies that receive federal financial assistance to provide "access" to individuals with disabilities.

Historically, Section 504 has been used to require public agencies to install wheelchair-accessible ramps, accessible restrooms and other building features, and to provide interpreters at meetings. Section 504 also requires school districts to ensure that children with disabilities are provided access to educational programs and services through physical modifications (such as ramps, widened doorways, and accessible restrooms and other school facilities) and intangible modifications (such as testing accommodations and assistance from interpreters, note takers, and readers).

Section 504 Eligibility

Your child may be entitled to assistance under Section 504 even if he or she is not eligible under IDEA. The first step in the process of getting assistance is to refer your child for Section 504 services—this simply means asking the school to consider your child's eligibility under Section 504. Some school districts automatically consider children who are found ineligible under IDEA for Section 504 services; if yours does not, request—in writing—that it do so.

Once a child has been referred, the school will evaluate your child's eligibility. It will look at:

  • whether your child has a physical or mental impairment
  • whether your child's impairment substantially limits the child's "major life activities," including learning, and
  • what types of accommodations your child needs in order to receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).

Major life activities are defined as tasks such as walking, seeing, eating, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, reading, thinking, communicating, practicing self-care, and performing manual tasks.

No particular medical condition automatically qualifies a child for Section 504 protection. ADHD, diabetes, dyslexia, food allergies, cancer, asthma, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, or depression may or may not limit a child's major life activities, depending on the severity of the condition.

What Section 504 Requires

In addition to requiring that all children have access to classrooms, bathrooms, recreational areas, and so on, Section 504 requires that students with disabilities be given appropriate educations. This can include accommodations to take care of health issues, supplemental services such as speech or occupational therapy, classroom aides, or a separate special education environment.

If your child is found eligible for help under Section 504, the school must develop a written plan describing the modifications, accommodations, and services your child will receive. Like an IEP, the Section 504 plan must be individually tailored to meet your child's needs. Many schools have developed a standard form for Section 504 plans; ask your school if it has one. Sometimes 504 plans are called "accommodation plans."

A Section 504 plan may include details on the following:

Placement. Section 504 requires that schools place a student with physical or mental disabilities in a mainstream classroom to the extent possible. Only if the school can show that the student can't receive a satisfactory education when surrounded by children without disabilities, even with the use of supplementary aids and services, is the school allowed to remove the child from a mainstream classroom.

Evaluation. Section 504 requires tests to be selected and administered to ensure that students with impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills are not at a disadvantage. Schools need to attempt to make sure that test results accurately demonstrate the student's knowledge or aptitude, rather than reflecting the student's impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills. For more information, see Nolo's article on testing accommodations.

Accommodations. Students with medical conditions may need a Section 504 plan to give them permission to disregard certain school rules and guidelines in order to manage their condition. For instance, a student with Type 1 diabetes may need to be able to carry insulin and a testing kit for blood glucose levels at all times. The American Diabetes Association offers a comprehensive sample Section 504 plan.

Section 504 vs. IDEA

The eligibility, procedural, and other requirements of Section 504 are different from IDEA's requirements. Section 504 is an anti-discrimination law, while IDEA provides funds for special education.

To be eligible for an IEP plan under IDEA, a student must have a disability or impairment that negatively affects his or her performance at school. In contrast, Section 504 requires that a child have an impairment that limits a major life activity. While not all children who are eligible for Section 504 protection are eligible for an IEP plan, all children who eligible for an IEP plan are protected under Section 504.

Note: Section 504 is enforced by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), a component of the U.S. Department of Education. IDEA is administered by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), also a component of the U.S. Department of Education, in combination with state educational agencies.

Private Schools and Section 504

Section 504 applies to private schools that receive any federal financial assistance, including grants from nonprofit organizations that receive money from the federal government. In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) extends the protections of Section 504 to private schools that don't receive any financial assistance.

Under Section 504, private schools may not exclude a student with disabilities if the student can receive an appropriate education with minor accommodations. In addition, a private school may only charge higher fees to a student with special needs if the higher fees are justified by a substantial increase in the school's costs in proving that child an appropriate education.

Lastly, Section 504 applies to charter schools just as it does the regular public schools.

Section 504 Complaints

If you are unhappy with your child's Section 504 plan or decisions made around it, first talk to your child's principal informally and try to work it out. If you still feel your child's rights to a free and appropriate education are not being met, you can file a written complaint. Give the complaint to the principal and, if necessary, the district superintendent or the district's "Section 504 designee." If appropriate action still isn't taken, you can hire a disability rights lawyer or education lawyer to help. Read Nolo's article about finding an education attorney.

You can learn more about protecting your child from discirmination for a disability or health-related condition in Nolo's article on disability discrimination at school.

Adapted from Nolo's book The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child, by Attorney Lawrence Siegel.

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