Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act
What is Section 504?
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 appropriate public education constitutes disability discrimination.
Who is a Disabled Student Under Section 504 for Purposes of FAPE?
A school-aged student is a disabled student under Section 504 for purposes of FAPE if the students has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
Physical or Mental Impairment
Physical or mental impairment means any physiological or psychological disorder or condition. The definition of physical or mental impairment under Section 504 is broad, 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 a nursing plan are not in place), and is not limited to any specific diseases or categories of medical conditions.
The determination of whether a student has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity must be made on the basis of an individual inquiry. A physical or mental impairment may be any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; genito-urinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine; or any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities. The list of specific diseases and conditions that may constitute a physical or mental impairment is not exhaustive because of the difficulty of ensuring the comprehensiveness of such a list.
There is no single formula or scale that measures substantial limitation. 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. An impairment need not prevent, or significantly or severely restrict, a student in performing a major life activity to be considered substantially limiting.
As a general rule, a student with a physical or mental impairment who is able to participate in or benefit from a district's education program, (e.g. attend school, advance from grade to grade, and meet the standards of personal independence and social responsibility expected of his or her age and cultural group) without the provision of special education or related aids or services, is not a disabled student under Section 504 for purposes of FAPE.
Impacting One or More Major Life Activities
Major life activities include functions such as caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. Major life activities also include other general activities such as eating, sleeping, standing, lifting, bending, reading, concentrating, thinking, and communicating. In addition, major life activities include major bodily functions such as the functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions. The above list of major life activities is not exhaustive; a major life activity or function not specifically listed above may be a major life activity. For example, the ability to meet the standards of personal independence and social responsibility expected of one’s age and cultural group is a major life activity for a school-aged student. In addition, the ability to participate in and benefit from school is a major life activity for a school-aged student.
Who Can Refer a Student for a Section 504 Evaluation?
Any person can refer a student for evaluation under Section 504. Parents, guardians, and school staff should refer a student for evaluation if they know or suspect that, due to a disability, the student needs special education or related aids or services to participate in or benefit from a district's education program.
The Bottom Line
Once a district has determined that a student is disabled under Section 504, the district must provide whatever services it decides the student needs to participate in and benefit from the districts education program. As a general rule, a district is under no obligation to provide a service that a students parent or guardian or doctor requests unless, in the district's determination, the student needs the service.
For more information on Section 504 and Special Education, visit the Office of Civil Rights.