Students & Schools : Section 504 & Disability Discrimination in Schools

Does the law prohibit discrimination or harassment of children with disabilities in schools?

Yes.  There are three federal laws that prohibit discrimination against children with disabilities.  This section of the website will discuss two of them:  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The third is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is discussed in more detail under the Special Education link on this website.

Section 504 is a law that makes it illegal for programs that receive federal funds to discriminate against people with disabilities. Because almost all schools receive federal money, they are covered by Section 504.  Section 504 requires schools to make their classes, programs, and activities accessible to students with disabilities and injuries.

The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, State and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.  It is mentioned/used in the school setting less often that Section 504, but does apply and provides essentially the same rights and protections to students in schools.

Do Section 504 and the ADA apply to public and private schools?

Yes!  Unlike IDEA, which applies only to public schools, Section 504 and the ADA apply to most private schools as well as public schools.   They require schools to provide access to their programs to students with disabilities.

What's the difference between Section 504 and the ADA?

The primary difference is that while Section 504 applies only to organizations that receive Federal funding, the ADA applies to a much broader universe. However, with respect to education, the ADA's objectives and language are very similar to Section 504, and for this reason both statutes are administered by the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education and considered essentially identical.

What does "disability" mean under Section 504?

Under Section 504, a disability is any physical or mental condition that seriously limits a "major life activity." Major life activities include taking care of yourself, working with your hands, walking, seeing, and hearing. They also include speaking, breathing, learning, and working. The meaning of "disability" under Section 504 is broader than the meaning of "disability" under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). For this reason, many children who are not covered by IDEA are covered by Section 504.

Who Does Section 504 Protect?

  • Any child who has any kind of disability.
  • Any child who was labeled in the past as having a disability. This includes children who did not really have a disability when they were labeled.
  • Any child who is treated as if she has a disability, even if she doesn't have one. 

How Does Section 504 Work In Schools?

Section 504 works in two ways:

First, it requires schools to take certain steps. These steps make sure that the school meets the needs of children with disabilities as well it meets the needs of other children.

Second, it prohibits schools from doing certain things that discriminate against children with disabilities.

What Does Section 504 Require Schools To Do?

  • Do a complete study of your child to learn about her disability and needs. This is known as an educational evaluation.
  • Provide special or regular education and support services that meet your child's needs.  This is done through a "Section 504 Plan," which in a some cases is very similar to the Individualized Education Program (IEP) required by IDEA.
  • Ensure that your child receives a free appropriate public education (FAPE).
  • Teach your child in the regular classroom unless his needs cannot be met there even with support services.  Like IDEA, Section 504 requires schools to educate children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment (LRE).
  • Make changes in the way the school does things to take into account your child's needs. These changes are called "accommodations." Examples are letting a child who has trouble writing use a computer, or letting a child who has trouble taking notes use a tape recorder.

What does Section 504 Prohibit Schools From Doing?

Schools cannot discriminate against your child because of her disability in any way. Examples of illegal discrimination are:

  • Assuming that your child cannot learn what other children learn simply because he has a certain disability.
  • Shorter school days for children with disabilities.
  • Punishing a child for behavior related to a disability. For example, suspending a child who is emotionally disturbed for shouting at a teacher. Or giving a child who can't understand school rules detention for breaking them.
  • Not allowing children with disabilities to take part in school sports and clubs.
  • Keeping children who use wheelchairs out of classes and activities because of stairs.
  • Giving children with disabilities second-rate classrooms and supplies.
  • Anything else that makes education less valuable for children with disabilities than it is for other children.

What kinds of disabilities/conditions are protected under Section 504 but not covered by IDEA?

The following are examples of students who may be protected by Section 504, but who may not be eligible for services under IDEA:
  • students with communicable diseases (i.e., hepatitis);
  • students with temporary disabilities arising from accidents who may need short term hospitalization or homebound recovery;
  • students with allergies or asthma;
  • students who are drug addicted or alcoholic, as long as they are not currently using illegal drugs;
  • students with environmental illnesses;
  • students who are 22 or older depending on state law;
  • parents with disabilities.
NOTE: Unlike IDEA, a child may be eligible for a Section 504 Plan if the child needs "related services" (eg, counseling, tutoring, behavior modification, medical services) but does not need special education (under IDEA, a child must "require special education" to be eligible for services and protections).

What if I disagree with my child's school about the services my child needs under Section 504?

Every school district that employs more than 14 people is required to adopt grievance procedures that incorporate due process standards and provide prompt and equitable resolution of complaints.

Section 504 and the ADA are enforced by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Education.

Click here for OCR's questions and answers on disability discrimination under Section 504.

If your child's school district does not have a grievance procedure, or you went through the school's grievance procedure and are still not satisfied with the result, you can file a complaint with OCR.

What if my child is being harassed or mistreated at school because of her disability?

Your child's school could be legally responsible for mistreatment or harassment of your child that occurs at school if the school engages in:

  • Bad faith or gross misjudgment.
  • Deliberate indifference to pervasive, severe disability-based harassment that effectively deprives a disabled student of access to the school's resources and opportunities.
  • Actions or omissions in response to the harassment that are clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.
  • Creating or allowing an abusive educational environment.

Section 504 and the ADA allow people who bring lawsuits based on disability discrimination and/or harassment and win to recover their attorney's fees from the other side.  You should consult an attorney if you have questions or think your child has been victimized or mistreated because of disability discrimination at school.

See also the Forms & Education tab in this section for more information.

The information in this site is not intended as legal advice.
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