Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil rights law that protects all children with disabilities from discrimination in programs that are publicly funded in the US. Parents of children with IEPs may know that their children also receive protection from discrimination under 504. So what about 504 plans? What are they, and who should have them?
Why a good evaluation matters
First of all, if your child has a disability mentioned or implied in the IDEA, he/she should be tested for special education. The reason for this is 504 has vague standards regarding evaluation procedures, but IDEA requires a comprehensive evaluation that can "identify all deficit skills". You may be told that your child is passing and there is no need. Stand firm on this issue because children with un-remediated skills can develop mental health issues and school avoidance. If it clear-- and all agree after evaluation-- that any skill needed for further education, living skills or employment is not adversely affected-- then a 504 plan may be appropriate.
If your child has a physical or mental impairment/disability, he/she may receive a 504 plan even if the impairment is short term or in remission. For example a child with Diabetes should qualify for a 504 and health services plan, but so can a child that has had mono, or is recovering from a concussion.
The key is that the disability has to '"substantially limit" a "major life activity." Let's tackle substantially limit first. To meet this description, your child should be compared to the general population. The Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 states that there should not be an extensive inquiry into this, it: "shall be broadly construed and applied without extensive analysis."
Does your child have more difficulty that most children in the act of reading, breathing, standing, concentrating, thinking (insert major life activity)? The list is extensive. If so, he/she would be found to have a substantial limitation because of the disability. What effort is required? It is the effort and not the performance that indicates whether the child is a child with a disability under 504.
If there are performance problems as well, circle back to IDEA; the school should evaluate for an IEP.
The Good and the Bad
It is a good thing that disability has been redefined under the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 (ADA) to be very broad.
Imagine that you have been told that an individual accommodations plan (IAP) will be developed and your child will be accommodated-- i.e. receive accommodations. "Accommodations" under 504 mean special education and related services to provide access to an education. Usually parents assume the word accommodations means passive provisions such as a ramp for a wheelchair or, extra time for test. It means much more. Special education and related services are provided to level the playing field-- simply provided and not measured to determine if they are providing a benefit.
Parents in Texas will be familiar with this when their child is given Dyslexia Services under the school's available program. Your child's deficit skills may not improve because the teacher is simply providing instruction. The program may not be appropriate to your child's needs-- a sign that your child should have an IEP.
Under 504, parents are not part of the team that makes decisions about their child's education. Usually they are invited to meetings, but the school does not have to consider their input.
Protections and Procedural Safeguards
There is no requirement to give a prior written notice letter that explains why a school is proposing or refusing an accommodation. There is also no right to request an Independent Evaluation at public expense. Moreover, if a student violates the student code of conduct, they are entitled to a meeting that considers the impact and contribution of the disability on behavior. If the school determines the disability did not have an impact, it can expel the student and will not be responsible for any further education.
Disagreements over accommodations are addressed through an administrative hearing known as 504 Due Process. The school district chooses the impartial hearing officer, who acts as a judge, and sets the rules. This may mean that they use an attorney who, although not related to school employees, is known for anti-parent views. A parent can bring an advocate or attorney, but district rules may say that witnesses cannot be cross-examined. Any decision as a result of this hearing can be appealed to civil court.
This is a quick overview of 504. For a comparison of IDEA to 504, or if you read this blog and believe that your child needs a 504 plan or IEP, please call me to discuss.