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What is Section 504?

Congress prohibited discrimination against persons with disabilities in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, in a segment most often referred to simply as "Section 504." This is a broadly worded prohibition that covers both children and adults. The principles enumerated in this section were later expanded and served as the basis for the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Additionally, the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 also amended some definitions of Section 504. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a federal civil rights law and prohibits discrimination by school districts receiving federal financial assistance against persons with disabilities. Included in the U.S. Department of Education regulations for Section 504 is the requirement that students with disabilities be provided with a free appropriate public education (FAPE). These regulations require identification, evaluation, provision of appropriate services, and procedural safeguards in every public school in the U.S.

Section 504 is designed to provide equal access and fairness in general education to students with disabilities, through what is known as a Section 504 Accommodation Plan or an Individual Accommodation Plan (IAP). It is not a plan designed to enhance a student’s performance, but rather a way to provide fairness and equal access to education. Section 504 requires the provision of FAPE for students who are identified as having a disability.

Who is eligible under Section 504?

A student may be considered eligible under Section 504 regulations if they meet any one of the three “prongs” of eligibility listed in the law. These are:

  1. Has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities,
  2. Has a record of such an impairment, oo
  3. Is regarded as having such impairment.

The prong under which a student is eligible will assist in determining which of the Section 504 protections are extended to the student. For example, the second or third prongs tend to become a factor if discrimination or negative action has occurred toward the student.

What does Section 504 consider to be a physical or mental impairment?

Section 504 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. The regulatory provision does not set forth an exhaustive list of specific diseases and conditions that may constitute physical or mental impairments because of the difficulty of ensuring the comprehensiveness of such a list.

It is important to remember that the presence of one of these conditions in itself does not qualify an individual for 504 protection. The impairment must also cause a substantial limitation of a major life activity. An impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.

What does Section 504 consider to be a major life activity?

Section 504 prohibits discrimination against individuals whose physical or mental impairment substantially limits one or more major life activities, including:

  • Caring for one's self
  • Performing manual tasks
  • Walking
  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Speaking
  • Breathing
  • Working
  • Learning

The determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity shall be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures, such as:

  1. medication, medical supplies, equipment, or appliances, low-vision devices (which do not include ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses), prosthetics including limbs and devices, hearing aids and cochlear implants or other implantable hearing devices, mobility devices, or oxygen therapy equipment and supplies;
  2. use of assistive technology;
  3. reasonable accommodations or auxiliary aids or services; or
  4. learned behavioral or adaptive neurological modifications.
What is considered an evaluation under Section 504?

The Schley County School System has specific responsibility under this act, which include the responsibility to identify, evaluate, and if Section 504 eligibility is determined, to afford access to appropriate educational programs. Section 504 evaluations draw upon a variety of sources and may include cumulative record and work sample review; observational data; interviews with student, parent and/or school personal; and/or administration of formal assessment measures. “Section 504 also requires that tests and other evaluation materials include those tailored to evaluate the specific area of educational need and not those designed to provide a single intelligence quotient.”

The OCR has opined that, at the elementary and secondary education level, the amount of information required to determine if a student has a disability is determined by a multi-disciplinary team. This team may also be the RtI/SST. The team may decide that a comprehensive psychoeducational evaluation is necessary; however, they may also determine that a simple review of existing data in the cumulative record is sufficient. This team should include persons knowledgeable about the student, interpretation of evaluation data, and the placement options available. It is “unacceptable to rely on presumptions and stereotypes regarding” whether or not a student has a disability.

A physician’s medical diagnosis alone is insufficient to suffice as an evaluation (OCR FAQ Document 2009, Questions 24 & 25). Although a medical diagnosis is one source of data to consider, it is neither required nor sufficient for establishing eligibility under Section 504. The Section 504 team (which also may be the RtI/SST) determines whether a medical evaluation is necessary in order to determine eligibility.

Examples of information used to consider 504 Eligibility:

  • Physician's Report
  • Educational Evaluation or Assessments
  • Parent Information
  • Health Care Plans
  • Work Samples
  • Achievement Data
  • Attendance Reports
Eligibility under Section 504

If a school district has reason to believe a student may have a disability as defined under Section 504 and may require special accommodations in the general education setting, and if the student is determined to be eligible under Section 504, the district must develop and implement a plan for the delivery of all services. The determination of the services needed must be made in accordance with evaluation data by a group of persons knowledgeable about the student. The team should review the nature and presence of the disability, how it affects the student's access to the educational process, whether reasonable accommodations are needed to prevent discrimination, and they must make decisions about the provision of those accommodations. The decisions about 504 eligibility and services must be documented in the student's file and, if services are provided, eligibility and the accommodation plan should be reviewed annually.

Accommodation Plans

If a student is found to be in need of a 504 Accommodation Plan, the plan developed by the review committee is based upon the individual student’s educational needs and least restrictive environment considerations. The plan will document the committee’s decisions and will include the date, student information, accommodations and services, and signatures and recommendations of members present at the meeting. A copy of the plan will be made available to appropriate school personnel. The plan will be filed and maintained in each student’s educational records. At any time, an amendment meeting may be held to make changes to a student’s Accommodation Plan. The meeting may be called by the parent, or the teacher, or another individual directly involved with the child’s academic program.

Parent Notice

It should be noted, under Section 504, that the parent or guardian must be provided with notice of actions affecting the identification, evaluation and placement of the student. While there is no requirement that the parent has the right to participate in making these decisions, most districts do invite the parent/guardian to meetings where these decisions are being made. Parents are entitled to an impartial due process hearing if they disagree with district decisions in these areas.

Summary

It is important to remember that some students who have physical or mental impairments which substantially limit their ability to participate in the educational program are entitled to rights under Section 504/ADA, even though they may not fall into IDEA categories and are not eligible for services under the law. Section 504 is not an aspect of special education. Rather, it is a civil rights law and therefore is the responsibility of the comprehensive general education system.