Legal Rights & Protections

Section 504

This law was put into effect in 1973 and extended civil rights to people with disabilities. Basically, this is an anti-discrimination clause that was included within a broader piece of legislature titled the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 states that no person can be discriminated against, excluded, or denied benefits from any institution, program, or activity receiving federal funds. This law helped people with disabilities obtain equal access to many settings including, schools, universities and places of employment that receive federal funds.

Section 504 does not actually provide funds for supporting people with disabilities; instead, it ensures that those institutions who already receive federal monies cannot discriminate against people with disabilities. This law is very similar (in fact the wording is almost identical) to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (the prohibition of discrimination based on race, national origin, or color).

Who exactly is protected under Section 504? There are three categories that are represented by Section 504. These categories are:

  1. Any person who has a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits one or more of his or her major life activities. Major life activities include things like learning, communicating, working, seeing, hearing, and eating, and moving around one’s environment
  2. Any person who has a record of such impairment is covered under Section 504. The person may no longer have that impairment (e.g., mental illness, cancer) but is discriminated because of that past impairment.
  3. Any person who is regarded as having such an impairment is also covered.

The first two points are fairly straight forward. But what about this last point—anyone who is regarded as having a physical or mental impairment? You may be wondering what this means. If a person fits into this category, that person may be covered under Section 504 even if he or she does not actually have a disability. That is, individuals may have a physical or mental impairment (e.g., very near-sighted) that doesn’t actually limit their functioning in any way, but because of the impairment, they are treated by others as if their functioning is limited. Or, a person may not have any kind of impairment whatsoever, but is treated as if he or she does. For example, a person who has been the victim of burn injuries and therefore has visible scarring may be treated by others as if he or she has a disability based on his or her appearance—even if that person, in fact, has no disability at all.

At school, Section 504 can be used to provide support for accommodations needed by students with disabilities who do not need or qualify for special education and related services under IDEA. They may not qualify for special education services because their disability is less severe, or because their disability does not fit into one of the specific disability categories that are named under IDEA. Often times supports provided under Section 504 (called 504 plans) are less intense in nature, and include measures such as front row seating, or accommodations for tests.

504 is also often used to provide needed services to students who have medical conditions, such as diabetes, who may need access to medical supplies, juice and snacks to maintain their blood sugar level. Students with diabetes sometimes also receive testing accommodations that depend on their blood sugar levels. When a student receives accommodations supported by Section 504, a team meets to discuss the student’s needs and develop the 504 plan; this meeting is similar in nature to an IEP meeting and should include parents, the student, teachers who work with the student, and a representative of the school administration.

Think about issues in your community or school that impact people with disabilities. Write a letter to a government official of your choice, or your local newspaper editor, in support of the principles of Section 504 as it pertains to the issue(s) you discovered in your community.

Now let’s move on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It is extremely similar to Section 504 - with one major difference. Please continue to learn more.