Kids with physical or mental disabilities can face academic hurdles for a variety of reasons. But parents can take advantage of federal laws to help ensure their children's special needs are met.
Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is designed to help parents of students with physical or mental impairments in public schools, or publicly funded private schools, work with educators to design customized educational plans. These 504 plans legally ensure that students will be treated fairly at school.
504 Plan Basics
Students can qualify for 504 plans if they have physical or mental impairments that affect or limit any of their abilities to:
walk, breathe, eat, or sleep
communicate, see, hear, or speak
read, concentrate, think, or learn
stand, bend, lift, or work
Examples of accommodations in 504 plans include:
extended time on tests and assignments
reduced homework or classwork
verbal, visual, or technology aids
modified textbooks or audio-video materials
behavior management support
adjusted class schedules or grading
excused lateness, absence, or missed classwork
pre-approved nurse's office visits and accompaniment to visits
occupational or physical therapy
The goal of 504 plans is for students to be educated in regular classrooms along with the services, accommodations, or educational aids they might need. If students with these plans can't achieve satisfactory academic success, as is determined by the school, then alternative settings in the school or private or residential programs can be considered.
504 Plans vs. IEPs
A 504 plan is different from an individualized education program (IEP). The main difference is that a 504 plan modifies a student's regular education program in a regular classroom setting. A 504 plan is monitored by classroom teachers. A student with an IEP, as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004), may receive different educational services in a special or regular educational setting, depending on the student's need. IEP programs are delivered and monitored by additional school support staff.
Also, parental approval and involvement is required for an IEP, but not for a 504 plan. Full parental participation in the 504 plan process, however, is important for the student's academic success.
It's important to note that students with IEPs are also entitled to the additional protections and services offered by 504 plans. Students with IEPs might benefit from a 504 plan, for example, if they're moving from a special education setting to a regular classroom.
Evaluation and Referral
A 504 plan should be considered when a student isn't benefiting from instruction due to a physical or mental impairment. The issue can be raised by a parent or legal guardian, teacher, physician, or therapist.
A 504 plan can help when a student returns to school after a serious injury or illness, or when a student isn't eligible for special education services or an IEP, but still needs extra services to succeed academically. Once an educational concern is raised, the school principal or other academic advisor sets up a meeting of a 504 planning team. The team usually consists of parents, the principal, classroom teachers, and other school personnel (such as the school nurse, guidance counselor, psychologist, or social worker).
After reviewing academic and medical records and interviewing the student and parents, the 504 team determines if the child is eligible to have a 504 plan put in place. Sometimes school officials and parents disagree about eligibility. Disagreements also can arise about details within the 504 plan itself. In these cases, parents can make written appeals to the school district or the U.S. Office for Civil Rights.
Reviewing the 504 Plan
Once the plan is developed by the team, all the student's teachers are responsible for implementing the accommodations in the plan, as well as participating in plan reviews.
The 504 plan should be reviewed at least annually to determine if the accommodations are up to date and appropriate, based on the student's needs. Any 504 plan team member, including the parent, may call for a 504 plan review at any time if there is an educational concern or change in the student's needs.
The plan can be terminated if the 504 team determines that the student:
is no longer disabled
no longer requires any special accommodations or services to meet the identified needs
can be appropriately instructed in general education
A Final Word
Parents have the right to choose where their kids will be educated. This choice includes public or private elementary schools and secondary schools, including religious schools. It also includes charter schools and home schools.
However, it is important to understand that the rights of children with disabilities who are placed by their parents in private elementary schools and secondary schools are not the same as those of kids with disabilities who are enrolled in public schools (or placed by public agencies in private schools when the public school is unable to provide a free appropriate public education).
Children with disabilities who are placed in private schools may not get any services or the same services they would have received in a public school.