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What counts as a disability for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act?

On Behalf of | Oct 28, 2021 | Education Law

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects students from discrimination in programs and activities that receive federal funding. The law applies to public school districts, colleges and universities and other state and local educational institutions.

The law requires schools to prove a “free appropriate public education” (“FAPE”) to students with disabilities, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability. This may require providing regular or special education and related services or aids that are designed to meet the student’s individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of non-disabled students are met.

What disabilities are covered by Section 504?

Essentially, any disability is covered by the law when their physical or mental impairment substantially limits a major life activity.

Major life activities generally include things such as:

  • Eating
  • Sleeping
  • Standing
  • Lifting
  • Bending
  • Reading
  • Concentrating
  • Thinking
  • Communicating

The law does not set out an exhaustive list of impairments that may qualify as disabling. Instead, the individual circumstances of the student are considered when determining their eligibility for Section 504 services. Indeed, the law does not list qualifying impairments that are known to substantially limit students’ major life activities. Instead, the question of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity is determined on a case-by-case basis after an evaluation process.

In some cases, temporary impairments or those that are episodic or in remission my qualify as disabilities under Section 504. This is when the impairment substantially impairs a major life activity for an extended period of time or when the impairment is active.

A medical diagnosis is not sufficient to determine that a student is entitled to Section 504 services. This is because an impairment is not in and of itself considered a disability. A medical diagnosis is very likely to be important to the evaluation process, however.

Who performs the evaluation?

Ultimately, the school district is responsible for the evaluation. With the parent’s consent, it must bring in a group of people, including people who are knowledgeable about the meaning of the evaluation data and the placement options, to perform the evaluation.

What if the family disagrees with the determination?

When parents disagree with the disability determination provided through the school district, they can request what is called a “due process hearing” to establish whether the evaluation was done properly.

Will the student’s disability be periodically reviewed?

Yes. Even if the student’s disability seems permanent, the school district must periodically review whether the circumstances remain the same and the student still needs the services offered through Section 504.

Does my child need both a Section 504 plan and an Individual Education Plan?

Individual education plans (IEPs) are required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), another law that helps students with disabilities obtain a free appropriate public education. If your student has an IEP under the IDEA, that plan meets the requirements for a free appropriate public education under Section 504.

If you have questions about Section 504, the IDEA or other education laws, contact an experienced education attorney.

Leigh Law Group represents students with disabilities in Section 504 and IDEA matters.