Section 504

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Public Law: 93-112)

Section 504 is a federal law that protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability.

  • Civil Rights Legislation for persons with disabilities
  • Focus is on non-discrimination

“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability…shall solely by reason of her or his 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.”  (Section 504 of the Disabilities Act)

504 & Title II of Americans with Disabilities Act ( ADA)

The primary difference between these two laws is that one applies to the recipients of grants from the federal government (Section 504) and the other applies only to public entities (Title II).

Section 504 requires identification, evaluation, provision of appropriate services and procedural safeguards in every public school in the United States

Section 504 applies to all programs and activities of the school district

Two primary requirements of Section 504 affect eligible school-aged children

  1. Non-discrimination
  2. The provision of a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) 

Students protected by Section 504 must have equal access to

  • The academic curriculum
  • Nonacademic extracurricular activities
  • Health services
  • Recreational activities
  • Athletics
  • Clubs, field trips, etc.
  • When granting access to extracurricular activities use the ‘otherwise qualified’ criterion: If a student is not otherwise qualified to participate in an extracurricular activity, then the school is not discriminating against the student when it denies the student participation. If a student is otherwise qualified,  then the school would be required to make accommodations to allow the student to participate

Section 504 is a responsibility of the general public education system. Building administrators (principals) and superintendents are responsible for the implementation of Section 504 within districts. Section 504 is not part of special education.

IDEA vs. Section 504  

IDEA deems eligible only those students who have certain specified types of disabilities who, because of this, require special education (specially designed instruction)

504 protects all handicapped students having a mental or physical impairment substantially limiting one or more major life activities

504 Eligibility

A qualified individual or handicapped person is any person who has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities.

A physical or mental impairment

  • Determined on an individual, case-by-case basis
  • The Section 504 regulation, at 34 C.F.R. 104.3(j)(2)(i), defines a physical or mental impairment as 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 regulation does not provide a list of specific diseases and conditions that may constitute physical or mental impairments because of the difficulty of ensuring the comprehensiveness of such a list. 
  • In general, students eligible for 504 plans are those with less-severe disabilities (those with more severe disabilities more often qualify under IDEA for services on an IEP). 

A major life activity

The Section 504 regulation at 34 C.F.R. 104.3(j)(2)(ii), definesmajor life activities to include functions such as caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. This list is not exhaustive. Other functions can be major life activities for purposes of Section 504.

Substantially limits one or more major life activities  

  • The determination of substantial limitation must be made on a case-by-case basis with respect to each individual student by a group of knowledgeable persons drawing upon information from a variety of sources.
  • The term “substantially limits” means that the student is:
    • unable to perform a major life activity that the average student of approximately    the same age can perform, or
    • significantly restricted as to the condition, manner or duration under which a particular life activity is performed as compared to the average student of approximately the same age. The impairment must be substantial and somewhat unique, rather than commonplace, when compared to the average student of approximately the same age.
  • There are no specific criteria for determining substantial limitation

When School Staff Should Consider the Existence of a Disability and Possible Section 504 Protection

  • When a disability of any kind is suspected.
  • When a student returns to school after a serious illness or injury, or following a hospital placement;
  • When a student is referred for evaluation but it is determined not to do an evaluation under the IDEA;
  • When a student is evaluated and is found not to qualify for Special Education services under the IDEA;
  • When a student is released from IDEA services;
  • When a student exhibits a chronic health condition

It is important to understand:

  • Simply because a student is considered for Section 504 services and protections does not mean that student is eligible and,
  • Just because a student is determined to have a mental or physical impairment does not automatically result in eligibility for Section 504 services and protections;  A substantial limitation must result from the physical or mental impairment

The 504 Accommodation Plan may contain:

  • Accommodations – to materials, teaching methods environment, daily schedule, etc.
  • Services – necessary to allow the student to access and participate in public school activities and programs
  • These services and accommodations should provide the student with equal access or equal opportunity to participate in educational programs, activities or services

504 Procedures

  • Referral
  • Evaluation
  • Determine eligibility
  • Develop 504 Plan
  • Meet annually
  • Periodic Re-evaluation

For more information: 

Office for Civil Rights (OCR)

US Department of Education



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