Disabilities Guidebook: Are You An Otherwise Qualified Individual With a Disability Under 504 of the Rehabilitation Act?

Disabilities Guidebook: Are You An Otherwise Qualified Individual With a Disability Under 504 of the Rehabilitation Act?

Last updated: December 2012

(Chapter 1, Section 2 from Guidebook of Laws and Programs for People with Disabilities)

Who Qualifies for Protection Under Section 504?

In General
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act usually is just called "Section 504" (§ 504).  It prohibits discrimination against you, due to your disability, by persons, businesses, organizations, or government agencies that are "recipients" of federal funds.

A "recipient" is any private person, business or organization or any public agency that runs any program or activity which receives "federal financial assistance." That term refers to any kind of grant or loan in the form of federal money, services, or property.

Examples of recipients having programs or activities which receive federal financial assistance:
1. Schools, colleges, and universities;
2. State (of Illinois) departments and agencies;
3. Counties and departments of cities or other local governments;
4. Airports;
5. Doctors who receive Medicaid or Medicare reimbursement;
6. Employers receiving federal disaster funds or small business loans.

Your Rights Depend on Whether You Are A "Qualified Individual with a Disability"

In order to have any rights against discrimination under § 504, you must be an "otherwise qualified individual with a disability."

What Is Meant by the Term "Otherwise Qualified Individual with A Disability"?
This means, first of all, that you must have a disability. Under § 504, "disability" is defined the same way it is defined under the ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. See the previous section of this Chapter titled "Who Has a Disability Under the ADA?"

In addition, you must be a person who is "otherwise qualified." This term has one meaning for employment and another meaning for services.

The Meaning of "Otherwise Qualified" in Employment:
In employment, the term means a person with a disability who can perform the "essential functions" of the job in question. If all you need is a reasonable accommodation to perform those functions, you also are considered "otherwise qualified"

The Meaning of "Otherwise Qualified" in Services:
As to services, the term means a person with a disability who meets the program's essential eligibility requirements for services. If you need a reasonable accommodation to meet those requirements, you also are considered "otherwise qualified."

In other words, the term "otherwise qualified" really means "qualified" to do a job or to be eligible for services. It does not mean that you are excused from being qualified because of your disability.

Example: A blind person having all the qualifications for driving a bus except sight is not considered "otherwise qualified" for the job of bus driver.

You are considered to be "otherwise qualified" if all you need to qualify is a "reasonable accommodation." This refers to the kind of reasonable accommodation that lets you perform the essential functions of the job or lets you meet the essential eligibility requirements for a service.

The term "accommodation" means that the employer or the program makes changes in its ordinary rules or in the environment of the workplace or the program.

You Are Not "Otherwise Qualified" If You Are a Substantial Risk or Danger to Yourself or Others

In Employment. In a job situation, you are not qualified for § 504 protection if, by working, there is a real serious risk that you would be endangering the health and safety of yourself or others. If the employer can eliminate the risk with a reasonable accommodation, then you would be qualified.

In Services. As to recipients that provide programs and services, you will not qualify for § 504 protection where they have certain restrictions that exclude persons with your particular type of disability. This is legal only where the restrictions are fairly related to reasonable health and safety concerns.


  • Persons who are blind can be prohibited from sitting next to emergency exits on airplanes.
  • A person with a history of mental illness and self-destructive behavior can be denied admission to medical school.
  • A public housing project can deny an application for tenancy to a person with past convictions for property crimes or crimes involving assault.
  • A university student with a cardiovascular defect can be prohibited from playing college basketball, if the student's defect puts him at an unacceptable risk of death.

There must be a substantial risk of injury or harm before you can be considered unqualified.

Qualifying By Obtaining a Reasonable Accommodation

The Need To Consider A Reasonable Accommodation
You may be qualified for a job or a service without any need for an accommodation for your disability. However, if you do not meet an essential requirement because of your disabilities, it must be determined if a reasonable accommodation would allow you to meet that requirement.

Example: Before a housing project can lawfully evict a person with a mental impairment who is considered a risk to other tenants, the landlord must show that no reasonable accommodation will minimize the risk.

When Is an Accommodation Not Reasonable?
An accommodation is not reasonable in two situations:

  • A proposed accommodation is not reasonable if it imposes an extreme financial burden or an excessive administrative burden on the employer or the program.

Example: An employee with anxiety disorders wants an accommodation that would move him away from co-workers whenever they
cause him stress. That would be an undue administrative burden on the employer because it would depend on the employee's stress level
at any given moment and on many variables that the employer could not control.

  • A proposed accommodation is unreasonable if it requires a fundamental change in the nature of the program.

Example: A university is not required to lower its educational standards to accommodate a student with a disability because that would be a fundamental change in its program.

The facts of your case will determine whether or not a proposed action is a reasonable accommodation under § 504.

The Types of Discrimination Prohibited Under § 504: In General

Your specific rights to be free from discrimination under § 504 are discussed in the chapters that follow. As a general rule, as long as you are qualified, a recipient can never do any of the following to you on the basis of your disability:

  • Deny you the opportunity to benefit from the employment or service;
  • Give you an opportunity to benefit from the employment or service that is not equal to the opportunity others get;
  • Provide you with an aid, benefit, or service that is not as effective or as good as that provided to others;
  • Provide different or separate benefits or services than are provided to others (this is legal if the separate services are necessary to make sure that benefits or services are equally effective);
  • Provide significant assistance to an agency, organization, or person that discriminates on the basis of disability;
  • Deny you the chance to participate as a member of planning or advisory boards;
  • Or otherwise limit your enjoyment of any right, privilege, advantage, or opportunity enjoyed by others who receive the benefit or service.

In addition, a recipient may not deny you the opportunity to participate in its regular program or activities. It cannot force you to participate in a separate or different program or activity, even though it may be legal to [INVALID] a separate or different program or activity.

When requested, all recipients must give you a "reasonable accommodation," if that accommodation is necessary to avoid any of the above types of discrimination.

Go to top
Return to Table of Contents

Helpful Organizations
The following organizations may be able to help you with

For a list of organizations in your area that may be able to help you, enter your zip code.



We welcome your comments and suggestions

User Survey - Please take a moment to fill out our User Survey to help us to provide better service.

Please do not email legal questions or information about your problem. We will not answer legal questions or provide legal assistance. You can find referrals to legal organizations that may be able to help you by clicking here.