Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of an individual’s disability. The purpose of Section 504 is “to empower individuals with disabilities to maximize employment, economic self-sufficiency, independence, and inclusion and integration into society.”
Students who do not meet IDEA 2004 eligibility requirements, as discussed on pages 32–33, but who need assistance to access school programs and prevent discrimination, may benefit from Section 504 and a 504 Plan for reasonable accommodations and/or modifications. All students eligible under IDEA 2004 are also protected under Section 504.
Section 504 applies to students, employees and the parents of students who attend public schools or any program operated by a recipient of federal funds. Section 504 states that no otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. The key regulations concern access to programs and reasonable accommodations.
To be eligible for protections under Section 504, an individual must have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity, such as: walking, breathing, speaking, hearing, seeing, learning, reading, writing, performing math calculations, working, performing manual tasks or caring for oneself.
Consequently, students with medical needs, especially those that are temporary, are often protected under Section 504. A student’s disability may require accommodations unrelated to the instructional program, such as access to classes or buildings. Protections must be extended to both extracurricular and nonacademic activities. For example, it is important that field trips take into consideration the needs of students with disabilities.
A student with a 504 Plan is not entitled to an IEP designed to meet his or her unique needs and from which he or she may receive educational benefit. Rather, for a student with a 504 Plan, the school must identify the services or other accommodations needed for him or her to access an education. A child who is eligible for Section 504 is entitled to a free appropriate public education that is defined as “the provision of regular or special education and related aids and services that…are designed to meet individual educational needs of persons with disabilities as adequately as the needs of persons without disabilities are met…” The idea is to level the playing field.
It is important to remember that an adverse effect on educational performance is not required for a child to be protected under Section 504. In fact, most children found eligible under Section 504 have disabilities that affect life activities other than learning.