Nancy Darling & Sean Burns
Children in the United States have the right to go to school. This includes children living with chronic conditions – like severe pain – that makes it challenging for them to attend school regularly.
Discrimination against children with disabilities is a violation of their civil rights.
There are two major ways that the needs of students with disabilities are met: through 504 Plans and IEPS. Although both are designed to remove educational barriers to K-12 students with disabilities, they serve different children and are mandated by different laws.
You can find a comparison of the two mechanisms here. Although both mechanisms can be very helpful for students with disabilities, we will spend most of this post focusing on 504s.
Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs).
IEPs (Individualized Educational Plans) are formal written documents that describe the plan for providing education services for individual students with disabilities who qualify for special education. IEPs are part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and cover students with specific disabilities. The ages of children covered by this law varies by state. The law requires public schools (including charters) to provide services to qualified individuals. The law does not extend to colleges or private schools. (Both may provide similar services, but are not required to do so.)
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 makes it illegal to discriminate against children with disabilities in public schools and in colleges, trade schools, or other educational institutions that take federal money.
The goal of a 504 plan is to remove barriers to learning. It is a civil rights law designed to create an even playing field for all students. It mandates that schools:
- make reasonable accommodations to allow students to participate;
- provide assistive technologies to help students work around barriers;
- provide services to overcome barriers.
For example, reasonable accommodations might include extra time for assignments or exams, allowing students to bring home an extra set of books to make it easier to work, or using mastery assessment for grading to reduce the burden of homework.
Asking teachers to provide copies of PowerPoint slides is a fairly common 504 request.
Other accommodations might include allowing a student who is light sensitive to wear a hat and sunglasses to class, a sound sensitive student to leave class a few minutes early to avoid noisy hallways, or a student to record lectures during a pain spike when it is difficult for them to concentrate.
Sitting near a window to reduce the effects of fluorescent lights on migraines or close to the board to help with vision problems are examples of reasonable accommodations.
Assistive technologies might include using calculators or phones to snap pictures of slides but also using a keyboard rather than writing by hand. It could include using a wheeled backpack even when they aren’t normally allowed.
Speech therapy and transportation are standard services often included in 504s.
Who’s covered by the law?
Section 504 is designed to protect students of all age who have a physical or mental disability that substantially limit a major life activity. For example, ADHD (attention deficit disorder), dyslexia, and other learning disabilities are covered by 504s. Hidden disabilities like allergies, high blood pressure, or chronic pain can also be covered by a 504.
Elementary, middle, and high schools are required to identify students who may have qualifying disabilities so that the schools can adequately reduce barriers that may interfere with their education. Colleges and other post-secondary schools are not required to do so. However, when students self-identify and produce appropriate documentation, colleges are required to provide appropriate services.
Students are required to produce documentation of the disability in order to be provided with services.
Limits to 504s: It is important to remember that the goal of a 504 is to reduce barriers to a general education. Thus the school must provide services that allow students to learn, but are not obliged to provide additional services, such as medical care.