Open the School Door to Section 504

Getting school services for children with disabilities who don't need special education.

Brenda should have been excited. Her daughter Jessica had just turned 5 and would be starting kindergarten this fall. Jessica couldn’t wait to go to school, but she had recently been diagnosed with diabetes. The diabetes needed managing: Jessica needed insulin administered, and her blood glucose and diet had to be monitored. As she got older, Jessica would be able to manage the diabetes herself, however, now she was too young. Though Brenda knew that kids with disabilities were entitled to special services, her daughter had an illness, not a disability. Jessica didn’t need special education. Was there anything Jessica’s school could do?

Brenda called Ms. Otero, the school principal. Ms. Otero said she understood the concern, telling Brenda not to worry. Though Jessica may not need special education, her diabetes might be considered a disability under a law called Section 504. And the school could develop a Section 504 Plan. This plan could outline how Brenda, Jessica and the school staff would manage the diabetes. Even if the school did not have a nurse, the plan could include the need of a nurse to train other school staff in how to monitor glucose and administer insulin.

Schools and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act does not specify that a child need special education to have a disability. The law protects people with disabilities— children and adults— from discrimination based on their disability. It prohibits discrimination in employment, public schools and access to services.

Under Section 504, 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. In the above scenario, Jessica would likely be entitled to the services needed to manage her diabetes, even though she does not require special education services.

The following are questions and answers regarding Section 504 and public schools:

What is a Section 504 Plan?

This is a plan developed by a team of people, including parents, who know about the student’s needs and who know about serving students with disabilities. It documents the student’s disability and outlines the services the school must provide to ensure the student has equal access regarding the school program.

In Jessica’s case, her Section 504 Plan also describes a plan to train appropriate school staff in a basic understanding of diabetes, as well as Jessica’s diabetes-related needs, how to identify medical emergencies and whom to contact in case of an emergency. While in this scenario Jessica is just starting kindergarten, as she gets older she may go on field trips or participate in sports or other extracurricular activities. As needs arise, her plan should be updated accordingly.

What is a disability under Section 504?

Students who have illnesses such as allergies, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, ulcers, kidney and liver disease, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS or diabetes are covered under Section 504. This is true whether or not these children need special education. Additionally, children who have physical impairments such as a limp, paralysis, arthritis, hearing loss and visual impairments would also be eligible for services under the plan. Also eligible are students with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, traumatic brain injuries, speech impairments and mental illness.

What should parents do if they have questions about getting Section 504 services for their child?

Complying with Section 504 is a general education responsibility just like complying with other federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion or ethnic origin. Section 504 requires that school districts identify a Section 504 coordinator to answer parents’ 504-related questions. Parents should contact an administrator at their child’s school to determine the Section 504 coordinator in their school district.

How is Section 504 eligibility determined?

Parents contact the school staff to begin the Section 504 evaluation process. First, the school evaluates the child based on the child’s needs. The evaluation information is then be reviewed to determine if the student has a disability. The eligibility for the services is determined by a group of individuals, who know about the child’s needs, what the evaluation information means and about services for students with disabilities.

If a student has a Section 504 disability, what services must the school provide?

The school must meet the needs of the student with a disability as adequately as the school meets the needs of students without disabilities. It doesn’t require that schools lower standards for the students by changing the instructional level, content or performance criteria. The law requires that schools provide special needs students with an equal opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

Thus, a student who is blind might be entitled to a Braille copy of a test and extra time to take the test. But the content of the test is the same as the test taken by students without disabilities.

Do parents have any rights in the process to determine eligibility for Section 504 services or in how services are provided?

Parents have the right to 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 (OCR). Details on how to file a complaint and more information about Section 504 can be found at the Office for Civil Rights Web site at www.ed.gov/ocr.

Section 504 is a civil rights law, ensuring that students with disabilities have equal access to public education. It is not a special education law. Therefore, a student can have a disability under Section 504 and not need special education. It was important for Jessica’s health and well-being to have this plan in place. With a little time spent identifying what she needs, followed by planning and coordinating how to meet those needs, Jessica will do just fine.