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Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on disability in programs and activities (whether public, private, or religious) that accept federal funds. Students with disabilities who do not qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) but who still need accommodations, modifications, or services to fully participate in and have equal access to school, may qualify for what is known as a “504 plan.”
Qualifying for a 504 Plan
Section 504 is a civil rights law that provides services to students who:
- have a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or
more of the student’s major life activities;
- have a record of such an impairment; or
- are regarded as having such an impairment.
Major life functions include walking, talking, taking care of oneself, working, and learning.
Under Section 504, a student must be “otherwise qualified” for the program or activity. For example, a school would not be required to include a student on the varsity team if a student didn’t meet the requirements due to skill level. However, the school would be required to include a student in a club if the club was open to all students but was located in an inaccessible part of the building and the student used a wheelchair (the school could change the location of where the club meets).
A 504 plan may be appropriate if a student does NOT need specialized instruction but DOES need an accommodation or modification in order to access educational programs and facilities on an equal basis as their non-disabled peers.
- extended time on tests and assignments
- preferential seating
- reduced homework or classwork
- use of verbal and visual aids
- behavior management supports, strategies and/or plans
- adjusted class schedules
- use of assistive technology
- modified textbooks or audio/video materials
- one-on-one tutor, aide, or notetaker
Creating a 504 Plan
Once a student is found eligible under Section 504, a group of people, often referred to as a multidisciplinary team or Section 504 Team, will develop a plan to address their needs. Although this is commonly called a 504 plan, the plan has no specific name.
A 504 Team should consist of people who know the student and understand their needs and may include the school district’s 504 coordinator (every district must have one). However, there is no requirement for parents to participate in a 504 Team or for written parental approval of the plan itself. Many schools do routinely involve parents in the process, but they are not legally obligated to do so.
Unlike an IEP, there is no standard format for 504 plans, but they generally list the modifications, supports, and services that a student needs to access the program or activity. Some districts may use the New Hampshire Department of Education’s Model Forms for 504 Plan Implementation while others may not. In this and other ways, a 504 plan is generally less detailed than an IEP and contains fewer rights and protections for parents and students.
Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
Once a 504 plan is drafted, the 504 Team will decide where the student will learn the best. The student is always educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE) possible. This means that students with disabilities should be educated alongside their non-disabled peers and in their regular educational environment unless the school demonstrates that even with the use of supplementary aids and services, the student cannot be educated there.
Rights and Protections
Although Section 504 contains fewer rights and protections for parents and students than the IDEA, there are some. Parents do have due process rights if they disagree with a school district’s recommendations under Section 504, including the right to an impartial hearing, representation by an attorney, and a review procedure.
Parents & Guardians are Also Covered Under Section 504
Unlike the IDEA, Section 504 is part of a general civil rights law and is not specific to students. Parents, guardians, and other school visitors may be covered under Section 504 (and the Americans with Disabilities Act) if they have a qualifying disability and need accommodations to access certain school activities. For example, upon request, meetings and school functions must be made accessible to parents who are Deaf or hard of hearing or who use a wheelchair.
Section 504 covers all or nearly all public schools as well as many private and religious schools. Section 504 applies to private and religious schools if they participate in federally funded free or reduced breakfast and lunch programs or accept federal funds for various things including the education of students with disabilities, services for at-risk students, textbooks and supplies, and professional development programs for teachers and staff. Many private and religious schools, including many Catholic schools, accept federal funds and therefore must comply with Section 504.