A child with a disability may face challenges in educational and extracurricular activities, for which they may require adjustments or accommodations. Sometimes they may need regular access to medication or a service animal while they are at school, for example, or they may even need an adult to assist them with basic functions. The federal government has enacted several laws protecting students with disabilities. The most notable laws are the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Federal Laws Extend Broadly
Every school in the U.S. is covered by at least one of these laws, except for schools that are operated by religious organizations and do not receive federal funding.
Understanding IDEA, Section 504, and the ADA
IDEA entitles children with disabilities to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. To accomplish this goal, it provides a right to Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for children with certain qualifying disabilities that adversely affect their educational performance. The 13 categories of disabilities listed by IDEA range from specific learning disabilities to autism spectrum disorder, emotional disturbances, and impairments of vision, hearing, or speech, among others. Parents and teachers must work together to develop a plan that is tailored to a child's specific needs. The IEP will provide goals that a child is expected to meet and a system for tracking their progress.
Meanwhile, Section 504 prohibits discrimination against students with disabilities at schools that receive federal funds. A child who is covered by Section 504 but is not eligible for an IEP may get assistance via a Section 504 plan. This is generally less structured and detailed than an IEP but levels the playing field for a child with a disability so that they can effectively participate in school and extracurricular activities.
Religious schools are exempt from the ADA.
The ADA is the only law that protects children in private schools that do not receive federal funds. Title III of this law, which covers "public accommodations," requires schools to provide reasonable modifications so that children with disabilities can participate in school programs and activities. For example, they may need to make exceptions or adjustments to some of their policies and procedures to take a child’s disability into account. However, the ADA does not require a school to craft a specific plan for each student with a disability.
Working with a School to Develop Accommodations
To make sure that they can accurately explain their child’s condition to school administrators, the parents must understand its details thoroughly. They should consult their child’s doctor and keep up with any changes in the child’s diagnosis and symptoms. This may involve changes to the health care needs of the child, which the parents will need to communicate to the school. For example, the parents will want to tell the school if the child will need access to medications at some point during the class schedule or during school activities. The parents also should make sure that the child understands the nature of their condition (to the extent appropriate for their age) and can recognize their symptoms. Thus, they can alert the school when a medical need arises.
Parents should ask school administrators about who is responsible for the health needs of children with disabilities. The school may have a designated coordinator for that purpose. If a child is not eligible for either an IEP or a Section 504 plan, the parents can discuss the child’s ADA rights with school administrators. They may ask the school to provide a certain accommodation, while explaining why the accommodation is tailored to the child’s specific disability.
Getting a Doctor’s Letter
Sometimes a child’s doctor can bolster a request for an accommodation by writing a letter to the school.
If the school does not agree to your requests or does not appear to be following the law, you may want to ask an attorney for advice. You also can explore the resources offered by the Office of Civil Rights for the Department of Education, which contain information for filing a complaint against a school. If you are looking for more information about rights related to a specific type of condition, you can consult the websites of national organizations that are dedicated to that condition.