Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, commonly called “Section 504,” is a federal law that protects students from discrimination based on disability. Section 504 assures that students with disabilities have educational opportunities and benefits equal to those provided to students without disabilities. To be eligible, a student must have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.
Definition of 504
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) is a federal civil rights law that is designed to eliminate disability discrimination in programs and activities that receive Federal funds. Since all public school districts receive federal funds, all public school districts must comply with Section 504. Under Section 504, denying a disabled student a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) constitutes discrimination. (See discrimination complaint form in Title IX section.)
Any school-aged student who has a mental of physical impairment that substantially limits one of more major life activities qualifies under Section 504. Physical or mental impairment means any physiological or psychological disorder or condition. The definition of physical or mental impairment under Section 504 is broad. It includes students with life-threatening health conditions (conditions that will put a student in danger of death during the school day if a medication or treatment order and/or nursing plan is not in place), and is not limited to any specific diseases or categories of medical conditions. Addiction to drugs or alcohol may be a physical or mental impairment that may result in a student being eligible for Section 504. A temporary impairment which has an expected duration of six months or less is a disability under Section 504 if it is severe enough that it substantially limits a major life activity.
A physical or mental impairment substantially limits a major life activity for a student if the impairment substantially limits the student’s ability to perform a major life activity as compared to the student’s non-disabled age/grade peers. There is no single formula or scale that measures substantial limitation. An impairment need not prevent, or significantly or severely restrict, a student in performing a major life activity to be considered substantially limiting.
Major Life Activities
Major life activities include functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, eating, sleeping, standing, lifting, bending, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, immune system function, neurological function, brain function, respiratory function, circulatory function, endocrine function, and/or reproductive functions. The ability to participate in and benefit from school is a major life activity for a school-aged student. The above list of major life activities is not exhaustive.
Mitigating measures used by a disabled student to manage his or her impairment or lessen the impact of his or her impairment (medication, medical devices, related aids, and/or service, etc.) must be disregarded when determining whether a student’s impairment constitutes a disability under Section 504.
Section 504 does not apply to pre-school students with disabilities enrolled in a district or federally funded pre-school. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that pre-school students with disabilities be provided FAPE. Pre-school students with disabilities or suspected disabilities most of the time are referred to the Special Education Department (SPED).
Students with disabilities pursuant to Section 504 include students who are eligible for Special Education. The difference is that students who are eligible for Special Education are in need of specially designed instruction as a result of a disability that is impacting their ability to access education.
School-Based Section 504 Team
The 504 team makes decisions regarding the evaluation and/or placement, and accommodations for students under Section 504. The membership on a particular student’s Section 504 team will vary depending upon the needs of each student. The Section 504 team, which includes the building’s 504 coordinator, will make the initial decision, but the team is fluid and may change within the year or between school years as the student’s needs, building placement, and /or services change. A 504 team must consist of at least two people who are knowledgeable about the student, can interpret the meaning of the student’s current evaluation data, and have authority to make placement options. The Section 504 team determines the scope of evaluations and if students qualify for Section 504, develops the 504 plan, and makes Manifestation Determinations for purposes of disciplinary exclusion from school.
Section 504 Building Coordinator
The building coordinator is a certified staff member at each building who is designated to coordinate all Section 504 activities with the school and is responsible for coordinating all aspects of the Section 504 referral and evaluation process. In most cases, schools will designate staff members such as the school nurse, counselor, psychologist, or administrator as the Building Coordinator. Schools may have multiple coordinators if deemed necessary.
District 504 Coordinator
The district program coordinator is the Student Services director that oversees the district’s compliance with Section 504, provides all training related to Section 504, and works with District legal counsel.
Section 504 plans should be reviewed at least annually and revised if necessary. It is the building coordinator's responsibility to communicate the Section 504 accommodations to the student’s teachers. A student should be re-evaluated pursuant to Section 504, at least once every three (3) years or whenever needs change. It is also prudent to consider conducting a re-evaluation before or shortly after a student transitions from elementary school to middle school or from middle school to high school.