Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More

Getting the right help for students with disabilities is made easier when families learn key vocabulary and understand how to use it. PAVE provides videos to support learning about student rights and how to work with the school to get individualized support.

Video number 1: Pyramid of Rights Protections for Students With Disabilities

The first video provides a visual to help—a pyramid of student rights. Learn about special education rights, civil rights, and general education rights. Students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are protected by the full pyramid of rights. Students with IEPs and Section 504 Plans have civil rights that protect their right to be accommodated and supported at school. All children in the United States have the right to access a free public education. Learn key terms from these rights: FAPE, equity, and access, and how to use those words to help a student get their needs met.

Here are resource links referenced in the video:

The video mentions that a civil rights complaint can be filed at the local, state, or federal level and may include elements of more than one civil rights protected area, such as disability discrimination, racism, and/or sexual discrimination. Here are resources with more information about civil rights complaint options and how to access forms:

  • 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.

The video provides information about some special education dispute resolution options. Here are related resources:

The Youth Education Law Collaborative offers some free legal assistance on topics related to educational equity, with a priority for families who demonstrate financial need:

Video number 2: Accommodations and Modifications

Our second video shares more detail about the rights of students under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Key to protecting those rights is the accommodations, modifications, and supports that enable a student with a disability to access what typically developing students can access without support. Non-discriminatory practices related to bullying, student discipline, and attendance are protected rights. Click on the video to learn more about what the right to equity means.

Here are resource links related to this video:

PAVE article: Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

Video number 3: IEP Goal Setting

Our third video provides more detail about the rights of a student with an IEP. A three-step process is provided to help family caregivers make sure a student’s IEP goals are supporting the right help in the right way. Learn about Present Levels of Performance (PLOP), Specially Designed Instruction (SDI), and SMART goals to become a well-trained partner in the IEP team process.

To get help from PAVE’s Parent Training and Information staff, click Get Help to complete an online Help Request Form.

We’d love to know whether these trainings are helpful. Please share your feedback by completing a short survey.

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.

Disability History Month Provides Opportunities for Reflection

A Brief Overview

  • Disability History and Awareness Month (RCW 28A.230.158) takes place during October to increase awareness, respect, and acceptance for people with disabilities, and to bring a greater sense of pride to people with disabilities.
  • State law requires public schools to promote educational activities that provide instruction, awareness, and understanding of disability history and people with disabilities.
  • The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides a list of resources and educational opportunities for recognizing and celebrating Disability History and Awareness.
  • The Office of the Educational Ombuds (OEO), in collaboration with Rooted in Rights, created a teaching resource: One Out of Five: Disability History and Pride Project.
  • This article highlights some key laws and legal actions that have impacted school access for students with disabilities in Washington State and nationally. Scroll down for a visual version of our timeline.

Full Article

Disability History and Awareness Month in October provides an opportunity for policy makers, teachers, families and people throughout communities to reflect on the disability rights movement. Equity and access are protected by law, yet there is still work to be done to ensure that laws are upheld and that everyone has fair access to opportunities.

Parent Centers like PAVE participate in making sure that families and individuals understand disability rights and how history has impacted current protections and the language of disability rights. Following is a timeline of key actions at the state and federal level.

Please note that this article is an overview and does not include every law or legal action involved in the long and complicated history of disability rights.

1954​: Brown versus Topeka Board of Education​

  • Separate but Equal was outlawed, and Equal Educational Opportunities became a right of all citizens. ​

1964​: Civil Rights Act​

  • Prohibited state and local governments from denying access to public facilities, establishing equality as a legal right and discrimination as illegal.  
  • Desegregated public schools and authorized the U.S. Attorney General to file lawsuits for suspected violations. ​
  • Established that agencies could lose federal funding for breaking the law.

1971: Washington guarantees special education rights

In 1971, the small but fierce Education for All Committee — Evelyn Chapman, Katie Dolan, Janet Taggart, Cecile Lindquist — worked with two law students to craft and advocate for passage of legislation (House Bill 90) to mandate public education for all children with disabilities age 3–21. HB 90 became Chapter 66 of the Laws of 1971, entitled Educational Opportunities for Handicapped Children, generally referred to as the Education for All Act. Washington’s special education law is now codified at RCW 28A.155

1972: Key precedents are established in other states

  1. P.A.R.C. v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania*
    • Established Free Public Education for all students.
  2. Mills versus Board of Education of DC
    • Established accessible, free and suitable education for all children of school age, regardless of disability or impairment

In Pennsylvania parents led a class action suit that established that all children, regardless of their skill level, have a right to go to school for free. A few months later, a Washington, DC, court ruled that education should be free and accessible and “suitable.” These two cases set up the country to formalize the right of any student with a disability to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), which is the language of today’s law.

*Note: PAVE recognizes that past terms have led to stigma; using person-first language is our priority. To learn more about how individuals with intellectual disabilities earned education rights through these landmark cases, refer to Disability Justice.

1973: The Rehabilitation Act

The rights of a person with a disability to get the help they need in order to be successful in school and at work–and to access to any public place or program–was firmly established by the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is still an active law upheld by the Office for Civil Rights. Part of it, Section 504, defines disability as any impairment that significantly impacts a major life activity. When a student in school meets that criteria because of a physical or mental condition, the school is bound by this law to provide what a student needs to access their right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

1975: The Education for All Handicapped Children Act

  • Required public schools to provide equal access to free educational programming
  • Provided for evaluation, a specific educational plan and parent input
  • Declared that special education should emulate as closely as possible the educational experiences of non-disabled students
  • Contained a provision for education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
  • Provided dispute resolution procedures

The Act was the first federal law that was specific to the education of children with disabilities. The law used the word “emulate” to indicate that students with disabilities had the right to a school experience that would look as much like a typical student’s program as possible. The additional requirement for education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) further motivated schools to work harder to include students of many abilities in general education classrooms. This 1975 law also set up specific guidance for parents to take action if they disagree with the school. Parents are informed about their rights through the Procedural Safeguards that are provided at IEP and other official meetings.

1979: PAVE began as one of the country’s first six parent centers

Pierce County was among six locations across the country to receive training in Special Education rights. Thirty Washington parents got trained about Special Education law in 1979. The goal was for those parents to share information throughout the state. To help this movement, a clearinghouse named Closer Look provided intense training for these pioneering parents about the laws. Closer Look evolved in the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY), and much of that work has been updated and preserved by the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR), the current technical assistance center for PAVE and other parent centers across the country. CPIR provides free information to professionals and parents through ParentCenterHub.org.

1981: Federal waiver program enables more children to get help at home

The federal government created a system through Medicaid to provide a new way to care for children and adults with disabilities in their homes. The new system provided a financial mechanism called a “waiver” to pay for in-home care. Once the first state Medicaid agency applied for and received a waiver from the federal government, other states began to apply. As a result, thousands of children who in the past might have lived in hospitals or state institutions now live at home. PAVE’s Family to Family Health Information Center is part of a nationwide Family Voices community that helps families understand and apply for these waivers and manage other aspects of care for their loved ones with disabilities and complex medical needs.

1988: Washington State recognizes the capacity of all persons

The Washington legislature passed RCW 71A.10.015 to recognize “the capacity of all persons, including those with developmental disabilities, to be personally and socially productive.

“The legislature further recognizes the state’s obligation to provide aid to persons with developmental disabilities through a uniform, coordinated system of services to enable them to achieve a greater measure of independence and fulfillment and to enjoy all rights and privileges under the Constitution and laws of the United States and the state of Washington.”

1990: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

  • Prohibits disability discrimination by federal and state government, including schools
  • Applies to all schools, workplaces—any space, public or private, that provides goods or services to the public
  • Covers people of all ages, including those who are discriminated against because they are perceived to have a disability, even if they don’t have one

Understood.org provides materials specifically designed for parents to provide basic understanding about ADA protections in schools. Included are printable fact sheets and instructions for filing formal complaints with various public agencies. Many ADA protections mirror those provided through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Key concepts in both are equity and access. The ADA and Section 504 protect a person throughout the lifespan. The Office for Civil Rights provides guidance for students with disabilities as they plan for higher education.

1990: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

  • All children with disabilities get a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)to be ready for further education, jobs and life! 
  • The rights of children with disabilities and their parents are protected. 
  • The law requires schools to assess a child’s program, to make sure it’s working, and the child is benefiting. 

When Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Act in 1990, the acronym FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) came into being. Now FAPE is key to this entitlement law. Entitlement means that a child with unique needs gets those needs served on an individual basis, not based on a system or program that’s already built and available.

The federal law drives how states design their own special education policies and procedures, which in our state are part of the Washington Administrative Codes (WACs). Title 34, Part 104, is the non-discrimination federal statute under the Office for Civil Rights Department of Education, and in Washington State rules for the provision of special education are in chapter 392-172A of the WAC. 

1992: Rehabilitation Act Amendments

Amendments to the 1973 Act put the abilities and choices of persons with a disability first and challenge the services system and the greater community to support individuals to work, live, and participate in the community. The Amendments are guided by the presumption of ability. A person with a disability, regardless of the severity of the disability, can achieve employment and other rehabilitation goals, if the appropriate services and supports are made available. The primary responsibilities of the vocational rehabilitation system are described:

  • Assist the individual with a disability to make informed choices about potential employment outcomes that result in integration and inclusion in the community.
  • Develop an individualized rehabilitation program with the full participation of the person with a disability.
  • Match the needs and interests reflected in the individualized programs with appropriate services and supports.
  • Proactively foster cooperative working relationships with other agencies and programs, including local education authorities, to unify the service system.
  • Emphasize the quality of services and the accountability that service representatives have to honor the dignity. participation, and growth of persons with disabilities as their employment interests develop over time.

2000: Settlegoode v. Portland Public Schools

  • Appropriate staff training is an important aspect of FAPE.
  • School staff have the right to advocate for children without retaliation.
  • The lawsuit was filed by a former special education PE teacher who was fired after highlighting errors in IEP implementation.

2004: IDEA Amendments

IDEA was amended by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. Several provisions aligned IDEA with the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Here are a few examples of updates:

  • IDEIA authorized 15 states to implement 3-year IEPs on a trial basis when parents continually agree. 
  • Drawing on the report of the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, the law revised the requirements for evaluating children with learning disabilities.
  • More concrete provisions relating to discipline of special education students were added. These are influencing current work to revise disciplinary standards in Washington State.
  • Students are entitled to education in regular classrooms, with needed supplementary aides and services, “to the maximum extent appropriate” under the principle of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)

2008: Washington schools are required to celebrate disability history each October

In passing a law to establish Disability History and Awareness Month (RCW 28A.230.158), the legislature determined that: “annually recognizing disability history throughout our entire public educational system, from kindergarten through grade twelve and at our colleges and universities, during the month of October will help to increase awareness and understanding of the contributions that people with disabilities in our state, nation, and the world have made to our society. The legislature further finds that recognizing disability history will increase respect and promote acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities. The legislature further finds that recognizing disability history will inspire students with disabilities to feel a greater sense of pride, reduce harassment and bullying, and help keep students with disabilities in school.”

2012 Employment First in Washington State

The Washington legislature passed Senate Bill 6384 for Employment First requirements for clients 21 and older within the Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA). In accordance with the new law, “The program should emphasize support for the clients so that they are able to participate in activities that integrate them into their community and support independent living and skills.”

The legislation:

  • Supports employment as the first choice for adults of working age
  • Incorporates the right to transition to a community access program after nine months in an employment service
  • Clarifies that a client receive only one service option at a time (employment or community access).

A DDA Policy Document describes history that led to passage of the legislation and rules for implementation.

2013: Doug C. v Hawaii

  • Parents must be included in the IEP process.
  • The lawsuit was filed in behalf of a parent who was not included in a school meeting at which key IEP decisions were made.

2015: Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

  • Reauthorizes 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the nation’s national education law.
  • Provides all children in the United States the right to a free public education “to ensure that every child achieves.”
  • Advances equity by upholding critical protections for America’s disadvantaged and high-need students.
  • Requires—for the first time—that all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.
  • Ensures that vital information is provided to educators, families, students, and communities through annual statewide assessments that measure student progress toward high standards.
  • Encourages evidence-based interventions.
  • Sustains and expands access to high-quality preschool.
  • Maintains accountability in low-performing schools, where groups of students are not making progress and where graduation rates are low.

2017: Endrew F versus Douglas County School District

  • The Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that under the IDEA a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress, in light of the child’s circumstances of disability.
  • The “de minimis standard” is overruled; trivial progress isn’t enough.
  • Grade-level standards are prioritized.
  • Parent participation is emphasized

The Endrew F case is still being discussed by a variety of agencies, and many professionals from groups that oversee educational process are calling on parents to hold schools accountable to these new standards. Writing for the court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts said that trivial progress would no longer meet the standard of FAPE and that the IDEA aims for grade level advancement for children with disabilities who can be educated in the regular classroom. A child making trivial progress, he said, would be tantamount to “sitting idly … awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.”

The above information is shown below as an infographic. You can click on the image and access the PDF of the same:

Infographic of the Disability Rights Timeline. Visit wapave.org and type disability History on the search bar to read the article and receive accessible information included  in this infographic

View this infographic in PDF form

Ready for Work: Vocational Rehabilitation Provides Guidance and Tools

A Brief Overview

  • Vocational rehabilitation (VR) is a federal right. Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) are one way to get support. Another is through 1:1 counseling and an Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE).
  • In Washington State, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) provides Pre-ETS and VR services. To seek support for a student still working toward a diploma, contact the DVR counselor assigned to the student’s school. DSHS maintains an interactive map: Find a School Transition Counselor.
  • Individuals with vision impairment and blindness are served through a separate vocational rehabilitation agency in Washington State, the Department of Services for the Blind (DSB).
  • After graduation, a student with a tribal affiliation may be eligible for support from Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation (TVR). Each TVR agency operates independently. Contact information is listed on a TVR website page, within DVR’s website.
  • Graduating seniors can seek DVR, TVR, or DSB services now!

Full Article

Teenagers and young adults with disabilities have additional considerations when deciding what life looks like after high school. The transition planning process begins in middle school, when all Washington State students work with counseling staff to begin their High School and Beyond Plan.

For students with disabilities, that lengthy planning process is enhanced when the Individualized Education Program (IEP) adds a Transition Plan, required by the school year when a student turns 16.

Vocational rehabilitation agencies can be part of that process and support a warm hand-off into the world of work. PAVE provides an infographic Transition Triangle with more about the way these services can wrap around a student as they move through school and beyond.

Vocational Rehabilitation services are a civil right

The right to vocational rehabilitation (VR) services is an aspect of Title 1 of the amended Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In 2014, the Rehabilitation Act, which guarantees equitable access to public spaces and programs, was further amended to include the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).

Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) were already an aspect of the Rehabilitation Act, but WIOA further defines Pre-ETS and requires that VR agencies set aside 15 percent of their funding to provide or arrange for the provision of Pre-ETS.

Note that Section 504 is also a feature of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 guarantees the right to accommodations for equitable access in public facilities and programs.

Section 504 is the basis for a student’s “504 Plan” that provides accommodations, modifications, and anti-discrimination measures for educational access. Section 504 protections aren’t limited to school: Like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 protects a person in higher education, work, and elsewhere throughout the lifespan. Students with IEPs also have Section 504 protections.

In other words, the accommodations from a student’s 504 Plan or IEP travel with them into higher education, work, and more. Section 504 and the ADA protect an individual with disabilities throughout their life. Denial of accommodation is considered discrimination under these civil rights laws.

In Washington State, vocational rehabilitation services are provided by the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), which is housed within the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

After graduation, a student with a tribal affiliation may be eligible for support from Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation (TVR). TVR agencies operate with sovereignty; contact information is included within DVR’s website, on a TVR website page.

Individuals with vision impairment and blindness are served through a separate vocational rehabilitation agency in Washington State, the Department of Services for the Blind (DSB).

Pre-ETS help students look ahead to their job options after graduation

Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) include job exploration, work-based learning, counseling about further educational options, workplace readiness and self-advocacy training.

Summer programs are available in some areas. To find the forms to enroll in Pre-ETS and for information about programs and regional counselors in your area, visit DVR’s website page called High School Transition.

Pre-ETS include five required services. Each service in this list is linked to a resource for further investigation. DVR counselors can provide additional resources to suit an individual’s unique circumstances:

  1. Job exploration counseling: career speakers, interest and ability inventories, investigation of labor market statistics and trends, and more
  2. Work-based learning experiences: in-school or after school opportunities, including internships, provided in an integrated environment to the maximum extent possible. According to the Brookings Institution, work-based learning is predictive of future job quality.
  3. Counseling on opportunities for further education: How to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) and how to locate disability resource centers at colleges and universities are part of college readiness.
  4. Workplace readiness training to develop social skills and independent living
  5. Instruction in self-advocacy, which may include peer mentoring, training in disability disclosure, and more

Order of Selection impacts access to 1:1 DVR support

The Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE) is a DVR program that is separate from Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS). The IPE is supported 1:1, whereas pre-employment services are generally provided to groups of students.

DVR operates with Order of Selection when clients apply for individualized vocational rehabilitation (VR) counseling. Through Order of Selection, individuals with the highest needs for support are prioritized.

When developing an IPE, the client and counselor establish a goal for employment; the counselor provides coaching, logistical and sometimes financial support to help make that happen. The case remains open until the employment goal is met if the client remains meaningfully engaged in the process. IPE services might include educational support if further education is needed to achieve a job goal.

Can a student get Pre-ETS and 1:1 help?

A student might receive services through both programs—Pre-ETS and the Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE). However, families should be aware that there are some specific rules related to Order of Selection.

  • If a student is already participating in Pre-ETS, the student can apply for an IPE and Order of Selection will not impact the student’s ongoing engagement in Pre-ETS.
  • If the student applies for an IPE first and is put on a waiting list, then the student also will have to wait to begin Pre-ETS.
  • A student will have more access to DVR services by engaging with the Pre-ETS first and then considering whether to also apply for individualized support.

Resources for more information

Research shows that access to an array of collaborative services during high school improves post-secondary outcomes, especially when school staff and service providers get to know one another and there are “warm hand-offs” between individuals who develop trusted relationships with the young person, according to data shared by the National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT). Another place for data and detail about WIOA is the Workforce Innovation Technical Assistance Center (WINTAC).

Engagement with vocational rehabilitation services is supported by initiatives endorsed by the U.S. Department of Labor and its Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). These federal agencies promote the concept of Employment First, a framework for systems change centered on the premise that all citizens, including individuals with significant disabilities, are capable of full participation in integrated employment and community life. 

The PACER Center, a Minnesota-based agency founded in 1977 to promote a “parents helping parents” philosophy, supports the National Parent Center on Transition and Employment, which offers a collection of materials with more information about vocational rehabilitation and how to benefit from pre-employment and employment services. Included in the PACER Center’s materials is a booklet for parents to help young people prepare for college and careers.

Washington’s DVR program provides a video about the school-to-work transition with young people talking about their experiences with the agency and how it helped.