Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability. Section 504 applies to any program or activity that receives federal funding, which includes public school districts and public universities.
Specifically, Section 504 provides: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . . .” 29 U.S.C. § 794(a).
In order to qualify under Section 504, a student must have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. “Major life activities” include learning, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, and communicating. The determination of whether the major life activity is substantially limited must be made without consideration of any mitigating measures, such as medication or assistive technology devices.
The Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education enforces Section 504 with regards to protecting the rights of students with disabilities.
In the area of education, the requirements of Section 504 include:
- FAPE: School districts must provide a “free appropriate public education to each qualified handicapped person who is in the recipient’s jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of the person’s handicap.”
- LRE: Every disabled person must be educated “with persons who are not handicapped to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of the handicapped person.” Specifically, “[a] recipient shall place a handicapped person in the regular educational environment operated by the recipient unless it is demonstrated by the recipient that the education of the person in the regular environment with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”
- Extra-curricular and Nonacademic Settings: School districts “shall ensure that handicapped persons participate with nonhandicapped persons in such activities to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of the handicapped person in question.”
Common issues that we see arise under Section 504 include:
- The failure to identify a student with a disability as eligible under Section 504.
- Requiring a student’s family to secure the documentation/proof of a disability.
- The failure to develop an appropriate Section 504 plan for a qualifying student.
- The failure to implement a student’s Section 504 plan, for example by not providing certain accommodations.