Section 504 and Children with Physical or Mental Disabilities
Children with disabilities have certain rights in schools under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which is a federal law on disability rights. If a school receives federal government funding, it must provide access to educational programs and services to children who have disabilities. For example, it may need to make modifications to school facilities that take these disabilities into account, including ramps and accessible bathrooms. A school also may need to provide designated staff members, supplemental services, or other accommodations to help students with disabilities participate in classes and school-sponsored extracurricular activities. Section 504 is different from IDEIA, the federal law that forms the basis for IEPs. Every child who is covered by IDEIA is covered by Section 504, but not every child who is covered by Section 504 is covered by IDEIA.
Section 504 covers children in public schools, charter schools, and many private schools, including not only private schools that receive federal funding but also private schools that receive funding from non-profit organizations that receive federal funding. The Americans with Disabilities Act provides similar protections to children in private schools that do not receive federal funding. Private schools cannot refuse to admit children with disabilities if their disabilities could be addressed with minor accommodations. They cannot even charge higher fees to the family of a child with a disability unless the school incurs significant costs due to accommodating the child’s disability.
Section 504 Eligibility
If your child is found to be ineligible under IDEIA, the school may automatically consider whether they are eligible under Section 504. If the school does not make this determination, you should ask it to evaluate your child’s eligibility. A child with a disability will be eligible for protection under Section 504 if they have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits their major life activities. These activities include learning, working, reading, speaking, hearing, thinking, communicating, and performing manual tasks, among others. The school also will consider the measures that would be needed to provide a free and appropriate public education to your child.
Section 504 does not provide automatic eligibility for children with certain physical or mental conditions. Each case requires a fact-specific evaluation of the disability at issue and how it affects the child’s major life activities.
Section 504 Plans
To provide an appropriate education to a child with a disability, Section 504 requires a school to create a written plan that outlines the adjustments needed for an individual child. This plan, which is often known as an accommodation plan, may follow a standard format or structure. It may provide that a child with a disability will be placed in a non-standard classroom if they cannot receive an appropriate education otherwise. However, a school must place a child with a disability in a standard classroom whenever possible, using supplementary services to accommodate their disability as needed. Section 504 plans also may cover testing accommodations that account for a disability so that the test results reflect the student’s knowledge of the materials. If a child needs to be exempted from certain school policies because of their condition, a Section 504 plan will state the deviations from policies that will be needed.
You can raise any concerns about a Section 504 plan or an apparent deviation from it with the principal of the school. If they prove reluctant to address your concerns, you can file a complaint with the principal and any other administrator who is responsible for Section 504 compliance. Ultimately, you can consult a lawyer to help you ensure that your child is receiving an appropriate education that accommodates their disability.