Opening the School Door to Section 504

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Brenda should have been excited. Her daughter Jessica would be starting kindergarten this fall. Jessica was smart as a whip and couldn’t wait to go to school. But Jessica had diabetes. The diabetes needed managing: she needed insulin administered and her blood glucose and diet monitored. When she got older Jessica would be able to manage the diabetes herself, but right now she was just too young.  Maybe Brenda could go to school with Jessica. But Brenda worked. Maybe if the school had a nurse, the nurse could help Jessica. But what if there wasn’t a nurse or the nurse was too busy? Brenda knew that kids with disabilities could get special services, but Jess had an illness not a disability. She certainly didn’t need special education. Was there anything Brenda could get the school to do?          

 Brenda called the school principal, Ms. Otero. Ms. Otero understood Brenda’s concern, but said not to worry. While Jessica may not need special education, her diabetes might be a disability under a law called Section 504. The school could develop something called a Section 504 Plan. The Section 504 Plan could include a nurse, or someone a nurse trained, monitoring blood glucose and administering insulin. Finally, Ms. Otero said that the “Section 504 Coordinator” would call Brenda to start the ball rolling to get Jessica these services. 

Schools and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act  
There are three federal laws that support students with disabilities in the public schools: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The first, the IDEA, requires schools to provide a free appropriate publication education to students with disabilities who need special education and related services. Under the IDEA a child must have an impairment and need special education services to be considered a child with a disability. But under the other two laws, Section 504 and the ADA, a child can have a disability without needing special education.  Section 504 and the ADA protect people with disabilities from discrimination based on their disability. Regarding the public schools, these laws prohibit discrimination against students with disabilities. This means that schools must provide services to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities as adequately as the schools meet the needs of students without disabilities. These services are outlined in a Section 504 Plan.  The following are questions and answers regarding Section 504 and the public schools. The ADA has the same definition of disability and the same requirements regarding public school services to students with disabilities. 

1.     What is a disability under Section 504?

A person has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Life activities are functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. All children who need special education under the IDEA also have disabilities under Section 504. But a child may have a disability under Section 504 and not need special education services.  For example, students, like Jessica, who have illnesses such as allergies, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, ulcers, kidney and liver disease, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, or diabetes would be covered under Section 504. Other examples include children who have a limp, paralysis, arthritis, hearing loss, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, traumatic brain injuries, speech impairments, mental illness and visual impairments.

 2.     How do parents get Section 504 services for their child?

Complying with Section 504 is a general education responsibility just like complying with other laws prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion, or ethnic origin. Section 504 requires that school districts identify a “Section 504 Coordinator”. Parents should contact the school administration to identify their district’s 504 Coordinator. 

3.     How is Section 504 eligibility determined?

Parents can contact the school staff to begin the Section 504 evaluation process. First, the school will evaluate the child based upon the child’s needs. Then, the evaluation information will be reviewed to determine if the student has a disability. Eligibility is decided by a group: not just one individual. The group will be people who know the child, what the evaluation information means, and how to serve students with disabilities.  

4. What services are required under Section 504?

The school must provide the student a free appropriate public education. This means providing services to meet the individual needs of the student with a disability as adequately as the school meets the needs of students without disabilities. Schools are not required to lower standards for students with disabilities by changing the instructional level, content, or performance criteria. But Section 504 does require that schools provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. Thus, a student who is blind or has difficulty taking tests might be entitled to a Braille copy of a test, shorter testing sessions, or extra time to take the test. But the content of the test is the same as the test provided to students without disabilities. Other examples of  Section 504 services include: 

● Providing a student who has cancer with a modified schedule that allows for rest and recuperation following chemotherapy;

●Providing a student who has a learning disability or visual impairment with a note-taker or tape recorder;

● Providing a student who has arthritis with a modified or adaptive physical education program;

● Providing a student with an emotional illness with an adjusted class schedule to allow time for counseling;

● Providing a student who has a physical impairment and has difficulty walking distances or climbing stairs with extra time between classes, relocated classes, and special parking.         

5.     What is a Section 504 Plan?

A Section 504 Plan is a plan developed by a team, including the parents, who know the student’s needs and how to serve students with disabilities. The plan documents the student’s disability and the services required to ensure the student has equal access to the school program.Jessica’s Section 504 Plan would document that her diabetes is a disability. Her plan would include who would monitor her glucose and administer her insulin. It might also include a plan to train school staff in a basic understanding of diabetes, Jessica’s diabetes related needs, how to identify medical emergencies, and who to contact in case of an emergency. Here, Jessica is just starting kindergarten, but as she gets older she may be participating in field trips, sports, or other extracurricular activities. As those needs arise, her Section 504 Plan should include managing her diabetes in those circumstances.  

6.     Do parents have the right to appeal or complain under Section 504?

Parents have the right to have a hearing if they disagree with how the school is providing Section 504 services. They should contact their school district or state department of education for information about that process. Parents may also file a complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights. Information about how to file a complaint or more information about Section 504 and the ADA can be found at the Office for Civil Rights website at          

  Section 504 is not a special education law. It is a civil rights law that protects students with disabilities. A student can have a disability under Section 504 and not need special education. Jessica doesn’t need special education. She just needs a  plan to manage her diabetes. With that plan in place, she’ll do just fine.