Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

A Brief Overview

  • Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is upheld by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
  • Section 504 prohibits discrimination based on disability in any program or activity that receives federal funding. All Washington state public schools must comply with this federal law.
  • Every student with a disability is protected from discrimination under this law, including each student with a 504 Plan and each student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  • Eligibility for Section 504 support at school is determined through evaluation. Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides fact sheets in multiple languages that describe the evaluation process and state requirements.
  • Civil rights complaint options are described at the end of this article.

Full Article

A student with a disability is protected by multiple federal laws. One of them is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is upheld by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act and provides key protections against disability discrimination.

To uphold a student’s civil rights under Section 504, schools provide accommodations and support to ensure that a student with a disability has what they need to access the opportunities provided to all students. That support is the essence of equity. Ensuring equity for students with disabilities is part of a school’s responsibility.

Students are protected in their access to academics, social engagement, extracurriculars, sports, events, and more—everything that is part of the school experience and school-sponsored activities.

Every student with a disability is protected from discrimination under this law, including each student with a 504 Plan and each student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Section 504 protects a person with disabilities throughout life and covers individuals in any public facility or program. A person can have a 504 Plan to support them in a vocational program, higher education, or in any location or service that receives federal funds.

All people with recognized disabilities also have protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Within a school, business, or other organization, the person responsible for upholding civil rights under these two laws might hold a title such as Section 504/ADA Compliance Officer.

TIP: If you have concern about civil rights being upheld within any organization, ask to speak with the person responsible for Section 504/ADA compliance. Ask for policies, practices, and complaint options in writing.

What counts as a disability under Section 504?

Section 504 does not specifically name disability conditions and life impacts in order to capture known and unknown conditions that could affect a person’s life in unique ways. In school, determination is made through evaluations that ask these questions:

  1. Does the student have an impairment?
  2. Does the impairment substantially limit one or more major life activities?

Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides fact sheets in multiple languages that describe the evaluation process and state requirements. Included is this information about what Section 504 means for students:

“Major life activities are activities that are important to most people’s daily lives. Caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, eating, sleeping, standing, bending, reading, concentrating, thinking, and communicating are some examples of major life activities.

“Major life activities also include major bodily functions, such as functions of the digestive, bowel, bladder, brain, circulatory, reproductive, neurological, or respiratory systems.

“Substantially limits should also be interpreted broadly. A student’s impairment does not need to prevent, or severely or significantly restrict, a major life activity to be substantially limiting.”

Pyramid of Rights: Students at the top have all these protections! 
Special Education Rights are protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Eligible students are served with an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Civil Rights are protected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Students with disabilities impacting a “major life activity” receive accommodations and individualized support as part of their IEP (if eligible) or through a Section 504 Plan.
General Education Rights are protected by Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). All children in the United States have the right to access free public education through age 21 or until they earn a high school diploma.

Does the student need a medical diagnosis?

A school cannot require a parent to provide a medical diagnosis to evaluate a student. However, a diagnosis can provide helpful information. The school could request a medical evaluation, at no cost to the parent, if medical information would support decision-making.

Note that a medical diagnosis does not automatically mean a student needs a 504 Plan. Doctors cannot prescribe a 504 plan—only the 504 team can make that decision. However, the 504 team must consider all information provided as part of its evaluation process.

Evaluations must disregard mitigating measures

A mitigating measure is a coping strategy that a person with a disability uses to eliminate or reduce the effects of an impairment. For example, a person who is deaf might read lips. A person with attention challenges might take medication. A person with dyslexia may read using audible books.

Because a person has adapted to their disability does not mean they give up the right to appropriate, individualized support. In its guidance, OSPI states:

“Mitigating measures cannot be considered when evaluating whether or not a student has a substantially limiting impairment.”

A school also cannot determine a student ineligible based on a condition that comes and goes. A student with a fluid illness (for example: bipolar disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome, or a gastrointestinal condition) may be eligible for Section 504 protections even though on some school days they function without any evidence of impairment. OSPI states:

“An impairment that is episodic or in remission remains a disability if, when in an active phase, this impairment substantially limits a major life activity.”

504 or IEP?

Eligibility for school-based services is determined through evaluation. Federal law that protects students in special education process is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

IDEA includes Child Find protections that require schools to evaluate a student if there is a reasonable suspicion that disability is impacting educational access. A student is evaluated in all areas of suspected disability to determine eligibility for services. If the student is found eligible, the evaluation provides key information about service needs.

Here’s what might happen after a student is evaluated:

  • A student is eligible for Section 504 protections but not an IEP. Data from the evaluation is used to build a Section 504 Plan for supporting the student with individualized accommodations and other needed supports.
  • A student is eligible for an IEP. The special education program includes goals that track progress toward learning in areas of specially designed instruction (SDI). Accommodations and supports that are protected by Section 504 are built into the IEP.
  • The school determines that the student does not have a disability or that a disability does not substantially limit educational activities. The student will not receive school-based services through an individualized plan or program.

Sometimes parents disagree with the school’s determination. Families have the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at school district expense if they disagree with the methods, findings, or conclusions from a district evaluation. PAVE provides an article that describes that process and provides a sample letter for requesting an IEE.

Case example from federal court

A 2018 federal court ruling regarding a student with Crohn’s disease highlights one complaint process. Parents provided the school with information about their child’s diagnosis and requested an evaluation for services. Their request was denied. The Third Circuit Court found the school in violation of the student’s right to appropriate evaluation under the Child Find Mandate. The court also found that the school should have provided special education services, not only accommodations with a Section 504 Plan:

“In seeing Crohn’s as something requiring only a Section 504 accommodation, not IDEA special education, [the district] treated the disease as something discrete and isolated rather than the defining condition of [this student’s] life.” 

Crohn’s Disease is one example of a specific medical condition that might require a unique support plan. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation provides relevant information about Section 504 rights and suggestions for accommodations.

TIP: If someone you support has a unique medical condition and there is an agency with wisdom about that condition, it’s worth asking whether there are specific recommendations that could be customized for a student’s Section 504 Plan or IEP. For example, the American Diabetes Association provides a sample Section 504 Plan to make sure the school is prepared to support the student’s routine and emergency diabetes care.

FAPE rights under Section 504

The right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is protected by Section 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities education Act (IDEA). PAVE provides a video training with more information about FAPE and Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More.

The most common way schools protect Section 504 FAPE rights is through accommodations. A student might have specifically designed help to accomplish their schoolwork, manage their emotions, use school equipment, or something else. The sky is the limit, and Section 504 is intentionally broad to capture a huge range of possible disability conditions that require vastly different types and levels of support.

Here are a two specific topic areas to consider when a student is protected by Section 504:

Section 504 complaint options

Some families are anxious about questioning actions taken by the school. Parents have protections under the law. The Office for Civil Rights maintains specific guidelines that prohibit retaliation against people who assert their rights through a complaint process.

A civil rights complaint can be filed at the local, state, or federal level. Here are resources related to those three options:

  • Local: OSPI maintains a list of school officials responsible for upholding student civil rights. Families can reach out to those personnel to request a complaint form for filing a civil rights complaint within their district.
  • State: OSPI provides a website page with direct links to step-by-step instructions for filing a civil rights complaint with the state Equity and Civil Rights Office, or the Human Rights Commission.
  • Federal: The U.S. Department of Education provides guidance about filing a federal complaint. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is another option for dispute resolution related to civil rights.

Holiday Survival Tips For Families with Special Healthcare Needs

Every family experiences holidays and end-of-year transitions differently. This article provides a sampling of ideas for families with children impacted by special healthcare needs.

Here are some quick takeaways:

  • Break the routine: Shifting from everyday routines can feel special even when activities are home-based and simple.
  • Plan and save surprises too: Mix up the activities so children can help with some planning and enjoy a few surprises also.
  • Wise men staying afar? When social distancing protocols are necessary for health and safety, meaningful connections are still possible through video calls, social media, snail mail letters, and more.
  • Handle with care: Plan for health and safety if travel is on the schedule.
  • Families need a village: Help is a present, but sometimes you must ask for what is on your list.
  • Gratitude is a gift: Moments of thankfulness calm the mind. For additional stress-reducers, PAVE provides a practical gift: Self-Care Videos for Families Series. We also offer short videos to help everyone find calm (Try Hot Chocolate Breath!): Mindfulness Video Series.

Break the routine, but keep the comfort

Some families have been home more than usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Virus variants may mean another holiday at home, but something special each day might add sparkle to a holiday staycation. Families might set aside ordinary routines to:

  • Bake
  • Sing
  • Read special stories
  • Play games together

On its website, WestEd.org, a California non-profit provides a guidebook for families staying home for health and safety reasons: Caring for Young Children While Sheltering in Place. Activity videos (story-based yoga, for example), easy-to-learn songs, arts-and-crafts, sensory play, and cooking with kids are among offerings for developmentally appropriate activities.  

Some families struggle to keep children nestled all snug in their beds in any season. Maintaining a sleep schedule can certainly minimize challenging behaviors. However, if appropriate, a “Holiday” sleep schedule with an extra hour of special family time before bed might add a fun flavor of flexibility for some families. For others, sleeping in or staying in jammies longer than usual might create a relaxing holiday feel. Be sure to call out these relaxed rules as holiday specials so everyone understands they are temporary changes and part of the “break.”

Silver bells, strings of streetlights and some holiday hustle may be in full swing, but there are ongoing differences as COVID continues to impact health and safety. Understanding your child’s healthcare needs and vulnerabilities can help with deciding what activities are right for your family. Drive through light shows and virtual celebrations are options in many areas.

One tradition that has always been virtual is the NORAD Santa tracker, which keeps tabs on Santa’s business on Christmas Eve and has kid-centered games and songs.

Finding the “just-right” amount of holiday celebrating can be tricky, so keep the Three Bears/Goldilocks principle in mind. For children who understand this theme, families can use the classic story to talk about how everyone makes choices about what is the “just right” amount of celebrating, eating, screen time, sleeping….

Plan and save surprises too

A theme for the year can add a new flavor to family traditions. Here are suggested themes:

  • How I celebrated when I was a kid
  • Christmas 1821, 1721, etc.
  • Holiday food, decorations, stories, music, etc. from another culture

The family can research the theme together to come up with ideas and activities. A theme night might include a chance for each family member to share something or lead an activity. On story night, each person might share a favorite holiday memory or a made-up story. If extended family want to participate, a video conference might be an added element to the evening.

Adults can set aside a few ideas to save for in-the-moment surprises to sprinkle in. A prize, special treat, well-told joke, customized family game, or a surprise “guest” on the phone are a few ideas to plan out in advance.

Wise men staying afar?

If the household is staying isolated to slow the spread of COVID and its variants, getting socially connected might require a bit of creativity. Of course, video teleconferencing or video phone calls are options. Letters and cards can be sent and received by mail, email, text, video…

Someone might drop by to deliver a singing telegram from a safe distance. Special messages can get written on front windows or shared by signs placed strategically inside or outside where someone will look. In-the-car parades or celebration drive-by events work for some people, while others can meet safely in outdoor spaces.

Consider who needs to connect, what messages need to be shared, and how to make the contact meaningful, whatever the format.

Handle with Care

For families choosing to travel, bags with medication and equipment need to include plenty of masks, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes. Plan extra supplies to accommodate unexpected delays and follow health and safety guidance related to the COVID-19 crisis. When planning for airflight, call or look online to understand the airline’s safety policies and procedures.

If plans include planes and trains, be sure to let agents and attendants know about a family member’s special accommodation needs. Washington travelers can make preflight preparations from Sea-Tac Airport by sending an email to: customerservice@portseattle.org. The phone number for the Spokane Airport Administrative Offices: (509) 455-6455. Amtrak provides a range of Accessible Travel Services.

Sugary treats might impact planning for children with diabetes: An insulin pump might help during the temporary splurges so a child can enjoy the holiday without feeling too different or overwhelmed.

Visions of sugarplums might need a different flavor for children with specific allergies or food sensitivities. Being prepared with substitutions may prevent a child from feeling left out. If someone else is doing the cooking, be sure to share about any severe allergies to make sure utensils and mixing containers do not get cross-contaminated.

Families need a village

No holiday is ever perfect, and unrealistic expectations can cause a celebration to sour. As always, ask for support from family, friends, doctors, and therapists—perhaps virtually—to reinforce positive messages and realistic expectations. Saying no can be nice, so choose what works and toss the guilt if the family needs to pass on a tradition or an invitation.

As always, remember to plan self-care, whether it is a soak in the tub, a special movie with popcorn, or simply a few pauses for five steady breaths. A caregiver is always stronger when that oxygen mask is well secured!

Gratitude is a gift

Gratitude helps the mind escape from stress-thinking and move toward feelings of peacefulness and grace. Taking a few moments to mindfully reflect on something that brings joy, beauty, love, sweetness—anything that feels positive—can create a sense of ease. An agency called MindWise Innovations provides tips to practice gratitude during the holidays, including this one: Make a list of things you have instead of things you want. 

Loss and grief

Many families continue to experience loss and grief. Talking openly might add an important element to a family’s unique and heart-felt holiday. For more practical support, including help with funeral expenses, families can contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): FEMA.gov/funeral-assistance/faq.

Here are a few places to seek support related to grief and loss:

Talking about grief and letting feelings, stories, and memories become part of the experience can help. “Remembering the person who died is part of the healing process,” the Dougy Center site advises. “One way to remember is simply to talk about the person who died. It’s okay to use his/her name and to share what you remember. You might say, Your dad really liked this song, or Your mom was the best pie maker I know.” 

Diabetes Care in Schools / School Action Plan

Kids spend half their day at school, which means it is incredibly important to have a well-thought-out diabetes management plan for the school day.

Every child will have a unique way of managing their diabetes. Some may use insulin pumps, insulin pens, or a syringe and vial. All students manage their diabetes differently, and all are at different stages. The older students may be more independent and administer their care, while others may be younger or less experienced and need assistance. It is essential that a doctor’s prescribed care and the medical management plan is specific to the individual child.

An excellent place to start is by looking at the diabetes medical management plan template that The American Diabetes Association and the National Diabetes Education Program created. This medical management plan can be customized for every student.  

Another thing to remember is that the school staff are a critical component in your child’s diabetes care plan. Therefore, it is essential that the school has a trained and knowledgeable staff to provide safe care and provision for your child with diabetes. As a parent, you play a considerable role in making that happen. Your child’s diabetes management plan requires a holistic approach. It is imperative that there is clear communication between the parent/guardian, childcare providers, healthcare providers, and the school staff so that all work together with the necessary information and resources that will help your child thrive.

If you are a parent of a child who recently got diagnosed with diabetes, and this is all new and overwhelming for you, it is important to remember that you are not alone in this. There are many resources and a wealth of information online from both professional and personal experiences.

Below is a list of helpful links to get you started:

When Having a Medical Action Plan is Mentioned, Do You Think of Your Child?

American Diabetes Association – Diabetes medical plan

Organize Your Child’s Medical and School Documents with a Care Notebook

Diabetes @ School – Individual Care Plan

School Setting – Insulin Pump, Diabetes School Action Plan

Diabetes Mom Blog – Type 1 Diabetes and Teacher Training