Frequently Asked Questions About Section 504 and the Education of Children with Disabilities for the Office for Civil Rights.
An important goal of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is to foster partnerships between school districts and parents to address the needs of students with disabilities. Such partnerships empower all parties to secure quality education. OCR has experienced a steady influx of complaints and inquiries in the area of elementary and secondary education involving Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (Section 504). Most of these concern identification of students who are protected by Section 504 and the means to obtain an appropriate education for such students. OCR reached out to parents and school districts to determine the kinds of assistance they needed.
Section 504 is a federal law designed to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities that receive federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Section 504 provides: "No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . . ."
OCR enforces Section 504 in programs and activities that receive funds from ED. Recipients of these funds include public school districts, institutions of higher education, and other state and local education agencies. The regulation implementing Section 504 in the context of educational institutions appears at 34 C.F.R. Part 104.
The Section 504 regulation requires a school district to provide a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) to each qualified student with a disability who is in the school district's jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability. FAPE consists of the provision of regular or special education and related aids and services designed to meet the student's individual needs.
This resource document clarifies pertinent requirements of Section 504 and responds to specific questions raised by parents and school districts.
For additional information, please contact the Office for Civil Rights.
INTERRELATIONSHIP OF IDEA AND SECTION 504
1. What is the jurisdiction of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) and state departments of education/instruction regarding educational services to students with disabilities?
OCR, a component of the U.S. Department of Education, enforces Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, (Section 504) a civil rights statute which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. OCR also enforces Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which extends this prohibition against discrimination to the full range of state or local government services (including public schools), programs, or activities regardless of whether they receive any federal funding. The standards adopted by the ADA were designed not to restrict the rights or remedies available under Section 504. The Title II regulations applicable to free and appropriate public education issues do not provide greater protection than applicable Section 504 regulations. This guidance focuses on Section 504.
The Office of SpecialEducation and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), also a component of the U.S. Department of Education, administers the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a statute which funds special education programs.
Each state educational agency is responsible for administering IDEA within the state and distributing the funds for special education programs.
Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education. The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by state and local governments. IDEA is a grant statute and attaches many specific conditions to the receipt of Federal IDEA funds. Section 504 and the ADA are antidiscrimination laws and do not provide any type of funding.
2. How does OCR get involved in disability issues within a school district?
OCR receives complaints from parents, students or advocates; 2) OCR provides technical assistance to school districts, parents or advocates; and 3) OCR initiates reviews or specific partnership initiatives with school districts to address disability issues.
3. Where can a school district, parent, or student get information on Section 504?
OCR provides technical assistance to school districts, parents, and students upon request.
4. What services are available for students who qualify under Section 504?
Section 504 requires recipients to provide to students with disabilities appropriate educational services designed to meet the individual needs of such students to the same extent as the needs of students without disabilities are met. An appropriate education for a student with a disability under the Section 504 regulations could consist of education in regular classrooms, education in regular classes with supplementary services, and/or special education and related services.
5. Does OCR examine individual placement or other educational decisions for students with disabilities?
Except in extraordinary circumstances, OCR does not review the result of individual placement or other educational decisions so long as the school district complies with the procedural requirements of Section 504 relating to identification and location of students with disabilities, evaluation of such students, and due process. Accordingly, OCR generally will not evaluate the content of a Section 504 plan or of an individualized education program (IEP); rather, any disagreement can be resolved through a due process hearing. The hearing would be conducted under Section 504 or the IDEA, whichever is applicable.
OCR will examine procedures by which school districts identify and evaluate students with disabilities and the procedural safeguards which those school districts provide students. OCR will also examine incidents in which students with disabilities are allegedly subjected to treatment which is different from the treatment to which similarly situated students without disabilities are subjected. Such incidents may involve the unwarranted exclusion of disabled students from educational programs and services.
6. What protections does OCR provide against retaliation?
A recipient is prohibited from intimidating, threatening, coercing, or discriminating against any individual for the purpose of interfering with any right or privilege secured by Section 504.
7. Does OCR mediate complaints?
OCR does not engage in formal mediation. However, OCR may offer to facilitate mediation, referred to as "Resolution between the Parties," to resolve a complaint filed under Section 504. This approach brings the parties together so that they may discuss possible resolution of the complaint immediately. If both parties are willing to utilize this approach, OCR will work with the parties to facilitate resolution by providing each an understanding of pertinent legal standards and possible remedies. An agreement reached between the parties is not monitored by OCR.
8. What are the appeal rights with OCR?
OCR is committed to ensuring that every complaint is appropriately resolved. If a complainant has questions or concerns about an OCR determination, he or she may contact the OCR staff person whose name appears in the complaint resolution letter. The complainant should address his or her concerns with as much specificity as possible, focusing on factual or legal questions that would change the resolution of the case. Should a complainant continue to have questions or concerns, he or she is advised to contact the Director of the responsible OCR field office. The Director will review the appropriateness of the complaint resolution. If the complainant remains dissatisfied, he or she may appeal to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Enforcement.
9. What does noncompliance with Section 504 mean?
A school district is out of compliance when it is violating any provision of the Section 504 statute or regulations.
10. What sanctions can OCR impose on a school district that is out of compliance?
OCR initially attempts to bring the school district into voluntary compliance through negotiation of a corrective action agreement. If OCR is unable to achieve voluntary compliance, OCR will initiate enforcement action. OCR may: (1) initiate administrative proceedings to terminate Department of Education financial assistance to the recipient; or (2) refer the case to the Department of Justice for judicial proceedings.
11. Who has ultimate authority to enforce Section 504?
In the educational context, OCR has been given administrative authority to enforce Section 504. Section 504 is a Federal statute that may be enforced through the Department's administrative process or through the Federal court system. In addition, a person may at any time file a private lawsuit against a school district.
STUDENTS PROTECTED UNDER SECTION 504
Section 504 covers qualified students with disabilities who attend schools receiving Federal financial assistance. To be protected under Section 504, a student must be determined to: 1) have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; 2) have a record of such an impairment, or 3) be regarded as having such an impairment. Section 504 requires that school districts provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to qualified students in their jurisdictions who have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
12. What is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity?
The determination of whether a student has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity must be made on the basis of an individual inquiry. The Section 504 regulation, at 34 C.F.R. 104.3(j)(2)(i), defines a physical or mental impairment as any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; genito-urinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine; or any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities. The regulation does not set forth an exhaustive list of specific diseases and conditions that may constitute physical or mental impairments because of the difficulty of ensuring the comprehensiveness of such a list.
Major life activities, as defined in the Section 504 regulation at 34 C.F.R. 104.3(j)(2)(ii), include functions such as caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. This list is not exhaustive. Other functions can be major life activities for purposes of Section 504.
13. Does the meaning of the phrase "qualified student with a disability" differ on the basis of a student's educational level, i.e., elementary and secondary versus postsecondary?
Yes. At the elementary and secondary educational level, a "qualified student with a disability" is a student with a disability who is: of an age at which students without disabilities are provided elementary and secondary educational services; of an age at which it is mandatory under state law to provide elementary and secondary educational services to students with disabilities; or a student to whom a state is required to provide a free appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
At the postsecondary educational level, a qualified student with a disability is a student with a disability who meets the academic and technical standards requisite for admission or participation in the institution's educational program or activity.
14. Does the nature of services to which a student is entitled under Section 504 differ by educational level?
Yes. Elementary and secondary recipients are required to provide a free, appropriate public education to qualified students with disabilities. Such an education consists of regular or special education and related aids and services designed to meet the individual educational needs of students with disabilities as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met.
At the postsecondary level, the recipient is required to provide students with appropriate academic adjustments and auxiliary aids and services that are necessary to afford an individual with a disability an equal opportunity to participate in a school's program. Recipients are not required to make adjustments or provide aids or services that would result in a fundamental alteration of a recipient's program or impose an undue burden.
15. Once a student is identified as eligible for services under Section 504, is that student always entitled to such services?
No. The protections of Section 504 extend only to individuals who meet the regulatory definition of a person with a disability. If a recipient school district re-evaluates a student in accordance with the Section 504 regulation at 34 C.F.R. 104.35 and determines that the student's mental or physical impairment no longer substantially limits his/her ability to learn or any other major life activity, the student is no longer eligible for services under Section 504.
16. Are current illegal users of drugs excluded from protection under Section 504?
Generally, yes. Section 504 excludes from the definition of a student with a disability, and from 504 protection, any student who is currently engaged in the illegal use of drugs (with exceptions for persons in rehabilitation programs).
17. Are current users of alcohol excluded from protection under Section 504?
No. Section 504's definition of a student with a disability does not exclude users of alcohol. However, Section 504 allows schools to take disciplinary action against students with disabilities using drugs or alcohol to the same extent as students without disabilities.
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