Disabilities Guidebook: Section 504: Education in Schools Receiving Federal Funds

Disabilities Guidebook: Section 504: Education in Schools Receiving Federal Funds

Last updated: January 2014

(Chapter 5 Section 2 from Guidebook of Laws and Programs for People with Disabilities)


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

What Is It? This law is usually just called "Section 504." It prevents discrimination based on your disability in any educational activity or program that receives federal funds. No otherwise qualified person with a disability, solely by reason of disability, can be: (1) discriminated against in these programs or activities; 2) excluded from participating in them; or (3) denied their benefits.

What Is Its Purpose? To make sure that public and private schools receiving federal funds treat students with disabilities equally compared to students without disabilities. To make sure they do not deny educational opportunity to persons with disabilities because of prejudice or ignorance.

Who Can Be Helped by This Law? A person who is an "otherwise qualified individual with a disability" and who seeks to participate in an educational program or activity that receives federal funds.

I. Your Legal Rights

Discrimination By Federally Funded Schools is Prohibited

Section 504 Applies to All Educational Programs and Activities Receiving Federal Funds.
If you are a student with a disability or have a child in school who has a disability, you should know about Section 504 (504) of the Rehabilitation Act. That law prohibits any educational program or activity that receives "federal financial assistance" from engaging in discrimination against an "otherwise qualified individual with a disability," solely by reason of the disability.

This means that educational programs receiving federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education cannot:

  • Exclude the student from participating in any school program or activity; or
  • Deny the student any of the benefits of that program or activity.

The recipient school must take into account the needs of the student in determining the aid, benefits, or services to be provided under the program or activity. When necessary, schools receiving federal funds must make a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability to have access to an educational program.

For the definition and examples of the terms appearing above in bold, see the section of this Guidebook titled "Are You an ‘Otherwise Qualified Individual With a Disability' Under 504 of the Rehabilitation Act" in Chapter 1, General Considerations.

Section 504 does not force states or school districts to create special programs for children with disabilities. Also, 504 does not create liability for educational malpractice.

The Types of Schools That Receive Federal Funds
Section 504 covers all kinds of educational programs and activities, as long as they receive federal funding. If they do, 504 covers public preschool, elementary, and secondary schools. It also covers private schools and adult educational services. It also covers universities and other post-secondary institutions of learning.

Relationship of 504 to IDEA
In Section 1 of this Chapter, we explain how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires states and local school districts to provide special education and related services to students with certain specified educational disabilities.

Like IDEA, 504 concerns special education and related services. Unlike IDEA, 504 also prohibits discrimination as to any other aspect of an educational program or activity.

Section 504 prohibits discrimination against qualified persons with a disability. Under 504, the term "disability" covers more people than do the categories of disabilities found in IDEA. Thus, 504 can protect students with conditions or impairments not covered by IDEA.
Example: Students with AD/HD or AIDS may not be protected by IDEA if their disabilities do not adversely affect them at school. However, they may be protected by 504.

If a student between the ages of 3 - 21 (the day before the student's 22nd birthday) has a disability under IDEA, and needs special education, then the public school responsible for the student's education must comply with both IDEA and 504. 

Section 504 provides for different remedies than IDEA if the statute is violated.
Example: You may be able to recover money damages under 504, but not under IDEA.

If parents have a good remedy under IDEA, they cannot rely on 504 to recover damages that are unavailable under IDEA. Also, parents with claims under both statutes must complete the administrative procedures under the IDEA before they can file a lawsuit under 504.

Proving Discrimination Under 504

What Is Needed to Prove a Case of Discrimination Under 504?
To make a case of discrimination under 504, you have to prove the following:

  • You have a disability;
  • You are "otherwise qualified" to participate in the program or activity;
  • You are being subjected to discrimination solely because of your disability; and
  • The educational program or activity receives federal funds.

You must show that the school knew or should have known of your disability.

Do You Have a Disability Under 504?
In order to prove discrimination against an educational program or activity that receives federal funds, you have to prove you are a person with a disability. Under 504, whether a person has a disability is decided in exactly the same way it is decided under the ADA. See the section of this Guidebook titled "Who Has A Disability Under the ADA?" in Chapter 1, General Considerations. If you are not considered to have a disability under the
ADA, you are not considered to have a disability under 504.

Is the Student "Otherwise Qualified" Under 504?
It is not enough just to have a disability. You also must be "otherwise qualified." See the section of this Guidebook titled "Are You An ‘Otherwise Qualified Individual With a Disability' Under 504 of the Rehabilitation Act?" in Chapter 1: General Considerations.

In the context of public preschool, elementary, or secondary, or adult educational services, an "otherwise qualified individual with a disability" means a person with a disability wh

  • Is of an age during which non-disabled persons are provided such services; or
  • Is of an age during which it is mandatory under state law to provide such services to persons with disabilities; or
  • Is entitled to a free appropriate public education under IDEA.

With respect to post-secondary and vocational education services, an "otherwise qualified individual with a disability" is one who meets the academic and technical standards for admission.
A student in a private program is an "otherwise qualified individual with a disability" if, with minor adjustments, the student can be provided an appropriate education within the recipient's program.

Students who use wheelchairs for greater mobility are otherwise qualified to attend school and are within the protection of section 504.

Is the Student Being Discriminated Against Solely Because of Disability?
If the student is an "otherwise qualified individual with a disability," then 504 prohibits discrimination, but only if the discrimination was due "solely" to the disability. This means that you must show:

  • The action was taken because of a disability; and
  • The disability was the only cause of the action, and there was no other reason. 

Elementary and Secondary Education

Private Programs
In general, a private school cannot charge you more for an appropriate education than it charges to non-disabled persons.

Recipient schools that operate private educational programs and activities are not required to provide an appropriate education to students with disabilities if the recipient does not offer programs designed to meet those needs.
Example: A private school that has no program for persons with intellectual disabilities is not required to admit such a person into its program. It does not have to arrange or pay for the person's education in another program, either.

However, a private school cannot exclude you, just because it lacks a special program, if you can participate in the regular program with some minor adjustments.
Example: A private school without a special program for students who are blind must admit a blind student who is able to participate in the regular program with minor adjustments in the way in which the program is normally offered.

Annual Location and Notification Requirement
Every year, a recipient of federal funds that runs a public elementary or secondary education program must try to identify and locate every qualified individual with a disability living in its jurisdiction who is not receiving a public education.

Every year, those public schools also must notify all individuals with disabilities and their parents or guardians of their 504 rights.

Procedural Safeguards
Every elementary or high school program that receives federal funds must have certain procedural safeguards for students needing special instruction or related services. Those safeguards are similar to those required by IDEA. These safeguards include:

  • Notice;
  • An opportunity for the parents or guardians to examine relevant records;
  • An impartial hearing with opportunity for participation by the person's parents or guardian and representation by counsel;
  • A review procedure.
    Example: A parent who requests an evaluation of a child based on suspicion that the child may be disabled triggers procedural safeguards under both IDEA and 504. The parent must be notified of the school's response and how the parent may challenge that response.

Accommodation of Parents with Disabilities
In many situations, 504 requires a school district which receives federal funds to provide sign-language interpreter services for parents who are deaf.

A district must provide an interpreter for school activities which directly involve the academic or disciplinary progress of students. The district must provide interpreter services at school meetings, conferences, and events which parents are invited to attend. 

Requirement for a Free, Appropriate Public Education
Every elementary and high school that receives federal funds must provide a "free, appropriate public education" (FAPE) to every qualified person with a disability who is in the recipient's jurisdiction. The school is required to do this regardless of the nature or severity of the person's disability.

A qualified individual with a disability cannot be excluded from a recipient school even if the disability is an infectious disease such as AIDS, or hepatitis B.

Special education under IDEA need only be given to students who have certain disabilities which cause an adverse affect on the person's educational performance. The FAPE requirement under 504 has no such restriction.

Under 504, FAPE means that the school must provide either regular or special education and related aids and services that:

  • Are designed to meet the individual educational needs of persons with disabilities as adequately as the needs of non-disabled persons are met, and
  • Satisfy the requirements of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).

An appropriate education may consist of education in regular classes or education in regular classes with the use of supplementary services.
Example: A high school may be required to allow a student with a disability to attend classes with a service dog if the student can show that use of the dog is reasonably related to the student's disability.

Under 504, an appropriate education may also consist of special education and related services. See the section of this Chapter titled "Special Education and Related Services."

Under 504, an appropriate education for a qualified student with a disability must be free. This means an education without cost to you or to your parents or guardian. The school may charge those fees that are imposed on non-disabled persons or their parents or guardian.

Costs for alternative placement. The recipient public school can either provide educational services for free, or it can refer you to a different program. This means that a recipient school must pay for the cost of any alternate placement if it does not itself provide you with the necessary services. This obligation includes not only tuition payments, but also transportation, psychological services and those medical services necessary for diagnostic and evaluative purposes.

If the recipient school is willing to provide you with a free appropriate public education, but your parents or guardian choose to place you in a private school, the recipient school is not required to pay for your education in a private school.

Costs for residential placement. If placement in a public or private residential program is necessary, the program must be provided at no cost to you or your parents or guardian. This includes non-medical care, room and board, and custodial and supervisory care.

When the residential care is required, not by your disability, but by factors such as your home conditions, the recipient school is not required to pay the cost of room and board.

Educational Facilities Must Be Accessible
Any recipient of federal funds with an educational program or activity has to make sure the program or activity is accessible to persons with disabilities, when viewed in its entirety. This includes accessible classrooms, doors, hallways and bathrooms. But not every room or even building must be accessible if you still have reasonable access to the program or activity.

No one standard must be followed. The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights uses the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards or the American National Standards Institute standards as a guide in determining compliance with the accessibility requirements of 504.

Accessibility can be achieved in ways other than the building's structure. For instance, a school district can meet the accessibility requirements of 504 by providing certain assistance to students with disabilities.

(1) Providing aides in the classroom; and
(2) One-to-one assistance in negotiating long, busy hallways.

A school district violates 504 by conducting graduation programs in facilities which are not accessible to persons with disabilities.

Testing Must Not Be Discriminatory
Section 504 requires that tests not discriminate against students with disabilities. A school district is not required to change the contents of minimal competency tests in order to accommodate students with disabilities.
Example:The district may require that students with disabilities pass a certain test in order to receive a diploma, but must provide the students with disabilities with accommodations and modifications.

Evaluations Required Before Placement
Children suspected of having a qualifying disability must be identified and evaluated within a reasonable time after school officials are on notice of behavior that is likely to indicate a disability.

Under 504, the recipient school must make the evaluation before making the initial placement of the student in either a regular or special education program. There also must be an evaluation before any significant change in placement.
Example: A school district violates 504 by failing to evaluate and assess a student for suspected attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and to provide appropriate modifications in the student's individualized education program.

The materials involved in the evaluation, including tests, must be validated for the specific purpose for which they are used. They must be administered by trained personnel. The tests and other evaluation materials must be tailored to assess specific areas of educational need, and not just an I.Q. score.
Example: A state violates 504 by solely administering IQ tests for the purpose of determining whether to place students with mental illness in a particular program.

When a test is given to a student with impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills, the test results must accurately reflect the student's aptitude or achievement level. They should not merely reflect the student's impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills, except where those skills are the factors that the test is trying to measure.

Placement and Re-evaluation
In interpreting evaluation data and in making placements, a recipient school must:
•Get information from a variety of sources, including aptitude and achievement tests, physical condition, teacher recommendations, social or cultural background, and adaptive behavior;
•Make sure that the placement decision is made by a group of persons who know about the child and the meaning of the evaluation data and the placement options; and
•Make sure that the placement decision is consistent with Department of Education regulations.
Example: A public school district violates 504 where the district fails to consider all of the evaluation data when deciding to place a student outside of the public school.

A recipient school must offer a range of placement options, and must place the student in the least restrictive environment. (See the section in this Chapter titled "Special Education and Related Services").

A recipient school must establish procedures for periodic reevaluation of students who receive special education and related services. A reevaluation procedure consistent with IDEA is one means of meeting this requirement.

Disruptive Children and School Discipline
A regular placement may not be appropriate if you are so disruptive that the education of other students is significantly impaired and your needs cannot be met in a regular classroom.

However, 504 prohibits a school district from expelling you if your misconduct was caused by your disability. Before you can be expelled, a trained and knowledgeable group of persons must decide if there is such a connection.

A lengthy suspension or expulsion from school of a student with a behavior disorder, without providing the student with educational services, violates 504. That is because it restricts educational opportunities for reasons related to the disability. However, a suspension of a few days for disruptive behavior is not a significant change in placement and does not require educational services during the suspension, unless non-disabled children suspended for disruptive behavior would receive educational services.

Exception for illegal drug use or alcohol use.
A local school district is allowed to take disciplinary action against any student with a disability who currently is engaged in the illegal use of drugs or in the use of alcohol. The district can discipline such students who have disabilities to the same extent that can do so against non-disabled students. The procedural safeguards normally applicable to disciplinary actions involving public elementary or secondary students with disabilities do not apply in this situation.

Special Schools or Separate School Programs
A school district violates 504 when it operates summer school programs for non-disabled children but not for children with severe disabilities attending special schools. However, 504 does not force states or school districts to create special programs for children with disabilities.

If a recipient operates a special school for persons with disabilities, it must make sure that its facility, services and activities are comparable to other facilities, services, and activities of the recipient.

Extracurricular Activities
A recipient school must provide non-academic services and extracurricular activities in a way that gives you an equal opportunity to participate. This may require a reasonable accommodation.

Non- academic and extracurricular services and activities may include: meals, recess periods, counseling services, athletics, health services, recreational activities, special interest groups or clubs sponsored by the recipients, referrals to agencies which provide assistance to persons with disabilities, and employment of students, including both employment by the recipient and assistance in making available outside employment.

A recipient school must make sure that you participate with non-disabled persons in such activities and services to the maximum extent that are appropriate to your needs.

Physical Education and Athletics
A recipient of federal funds cannot discriminate on the basis of disability in providing physical education courses and athletics programs. A recipient that offers P.E. courses or intramural athletics must provide to qualified students with disabilities an equal opportunity for participation in these activities. This may require a reasonable accommodation.

A recipient is allowed to offer to students with disabilities physical education and athletic activities that are separate or different from those offered to non-disabled students. However, any separation or differences must meet other requirements in the DOE regulations.

Also, you cannot be denied the opportunity to compete for regular teams or to participate in regular courses. Most students with disabilities are able to participate in one or more regular physical education and athletic activities. A reasonable accommodation may have to be given.
(1) A student in a wheelchair can participate in a regular archery course.
(2) Students who are deaf can participate in a wrestling course or on the basketball team once a sign language interpreter is provided.

A common issue arises when students with disabilities have to repeat a grade in school, keeping them in school past age 18. Many schools have a rule barring students over the age of 18 from participating in interscholastic athletics. The courts have disagreed whether these students are discriminated against by application of the rule.

Transportation Services
Under 504, a recipient school is required to offer transportation services in a way that gives you an equal opportunity to receive those services. The school must give this opportunity to the maximum extent appropriate to your needs.
Example: A university's on-campus bus system does not meet this requirement where only one of five buses and none of seven vans are accessible to mobility- impaired people, and the lift-equipped bus is available only 4 hours per day.

A recipient school cannot discriminate between non-disabled students and students with disabilities in providing school transportation. If there is discrimination, students with disabilities are entitled to reasonable modifications of the transportation program to remedy the discrimination.
Example: A school district did not violate 504 where the district's special van was broken down for a period of time, because the district offered to reimburse the student's parent who transported the student herself for that period of time.

If a student with a disability is placed in a different facility or school, the recipient public school responsible for the child's education must make sure that adequate transportation to and from the program is provided. This transportation must not cost more than what transportation would cost if the student had been placed in the recipient's own program.

Field Trips
A school district cannot discriminate against you when it schedules a field trip when school is in session. This is true even when the students pay for a substantial part of the trip expenses. A school district must provide you and your parents with notice about your opportunity to participate in voluntary school trips.

A student with a disability is not "otherwise qualified" under 504, for a trip if the student cannot physically meet the demands of the trip. However, the student is qualified for a trip if he or she can meet the demands of the trip with a reasonable accommodation. In that case, the school must provide the reasonable accommodation. 

Universities, Colleges and Other Post-Secondary Institutions

Under 504, any colleges, universities and post-secondary institutions receiving federal funds are prohibited from discriminating against qualified applicants and students solely on the basis of their disability. The prohibition against discrimination even covers personal or academic counseling provided to students.
Example: It is illegal for a professor to harass a student because of the student's disability.

A recipient school must operate its programs and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate.
Example: A college has several elementary physics classes and moves one such class to the first floor of the science building to accommodate students with wheelchairs. The college decides that it will put students with other types of disabilities, but no mobility impairments, in the same class. Because this unnecessarily segregates those students, the college violates 504.

College Admission Tests
In general, colleges or other post-secondary schools receiving federal funds cannot use any test or criterion for admission that has a disproportionate, adverse effect on persons with disabilities.

There is one exception. A college can use an admission test or criterion that has an adverse effect on persons with disabilities where the test or criterion has been validated as a predictor of success in the education program or activity in question. To use such a test, there must be no other tests available that have a less disproportionate, adverse effect.

An aptitude test does not have a disproportionate, adverse effect on persons with disabilities if it is available in special formats for persons with disabilities.

When an admissions test is given to a student with impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills, the test results must accurately reflect the student's aptitude or achievement level. They should not merely reflect the student's impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills.

Admissions tests that are designed for persons with impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills must be offered as often and in as timely a manner as are other admissions tests. Admissions tests must be given in facilities that are accessible to persons with disabilities.

Admission Inquiries
A recipient of federal funds cannot make an inquiry as to whether an applicant for admission is a person with a disability. After admission, the recipient may make inquiries on a confidential basis as to disabilities that may require accommodation, if the person with a disability is requesting an accommodation.
Example: A vocational school violated 504 by making pre-admission inquiries regarding the nature of applicants' disabilities before admitting them to its school.

Admissions to Post-Secondary Schools
Recipients cannot deny admission to qualified persons with disabilities on the basis of disability. Nor can they discriminate in admission or recruitment practices. A recipient cannot limit the number or proportion of persons with disabilities who may be admitted.

There is no requirement under 504 for an educational institution to lower its standards to accommodate persons with disabilities. This is true even for those with learning disabilities. Also, 504 does not require colleges to establish special affirmative action programs for persons with disabilities who do not qualify for regular admission.

Financial Assistance for Post-Secondary Schools
In providing financial assistance, a recipient school cannot discriminate on the basis of disability. This means the recipient cannot:

  • Give you less assistance than is provided to non-disabled persons;
  • Limit your eligibility for assistance; or
  • Assist any group that provides financial help to students in a way that discriminates against qualified persons with disabilities.

    It is not discriminatory to deny an athletic scholarship to a person with a disability if the disability leaves the person unable to qualify for the award.
    (1) A student who has a neurological disorder may be denied a varsity football scholarship on the basis of inability to play football.
    (2) A student cannot be denied a scholarship for the school's diving team, on the basis of being deaf, where the disability has no effect on his comparative diving ability.

Living Accommodations at School
A recipient school that provides housing to its non-disabled students must provide comparable, convenient, and accessible housing to students with disabilities at the same cost as to others. A post-secondary school must make available housing which is wheelchair-accessible.

If you are qualified, you cannot be excluded from participation in a college roommate assignment program by reason of your disabilities. It violates 504 for a school to have a blanket policy prohibiting the assignment of roommates to students with disabilities

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