What Is The Definition Of 504? Should Parents Care?

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Last Updated on February 12, 2024 by Michelle Ball

By Michelle Ball, Sacramento California Expulsion, Special Education, sports/CIF, College, Education and School Attorney/Lawyer for Students since 1995

Terminology in schools can be very confusing. Schools always presume parents know what terms like “504” and “Section 504” mean, when most don’t. Why would we?

What is the definition of “504” and what is “Section 504?” Why is knowing about Section 504 critical for some disabled students?

Young special needs boy with book
Section 504 grants federal rights to disabled students

Let’s clear it up.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 Changed the World

In 1973, the United States Congress passed a law called the Rehabilitation Act (aka the Rehab Act). This was very significant in that the “Rehab Act” addresses the rights of disabled people to equal access. This was really a world-changing event.

Per an article from the Colorado State University on the history of disability laws:

The Rehabilitation Act was the first act to address the notion of equal access of people with disabilities through the removal of architectural, employment and transportation barriers

Section 504 of the Rehab Act addresses access to federally funded locations (for example, public schools), for physically and mentally disabled students.

What Does “Section 504” Mean?

Black girl playing in sand
Parents should use Section 504 to help students

“Section 504” aka “504” is simply the nickname for the section of the Rehab Act, that was originally numbered 504…. that’s it. Saying “504” now, or asking for a “504 plan,” essentially means the person is referring to a plan to help a disabled student.

Referring to “504” isn’t just a number. It carries weight and has a specific meaning.

Where is Section 504 now?

Section 504 has morphed and changed over the years, and is now housed in section 794 of the United States Code, volume 29 (29 USC 794), which states in part:

(a) 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 …

(b)“Program or activity” defined For the purposes of this section, the term “program or activity” means all of the operations of—…

(2)(A) a college, university, or other postsecondary institution, or a public system of higher education; or

(B) a local educational agency… system of career and technical education, or other school system [emphasis added]

Why Parents Should Care?

Red haired boy squatting with football
Section 504 is important for disabled students

Parents and students should care about Section 504 as it is a very strong protective law for students with disabilities attending a public school or college (or a private one which accepts federal funds).

Section 504 stops these schools and colleges from discriminating against a student with disabilities. It triggers obligations of federally funded schools and colleges to support the disabled student by providing reasonable accommodations.

If a disabled student cannot attend to their studies due to their Anxiety, and needs more frequent breaks, or to visit a counselor sometimes, this should be accommodated by the school under section 504.

Schools and Colleges Need to Know a Student is Disabled, First

Section 504 does not just suddenly and magically accommodate a student. Rather, a school or college must KNOW that the student is a qualifying student with a disability, to be required to accommodate them.

Section 504 manifests in public schools with a Section 504 evaluation, meeting and plan.

In colleges, it starts with registration as a disabled student and getting accommodations worked out. These must then be put in a written plan and communicated to professors and others who need to know.

Muscly strong man lifting heavy weight
Section 504 can give parents the strength to help a struggling student

Section 504 is Powerful!

Section 504 is a powerful civil rights law. Parents and students should not be intimidated due to not knowing everything about 504 plans.

Start the 504 process and work with a school team to get adequate student disability accommodations put in place.

If the 504 plan starts off weak, parents and students can continue working on it, as often schools and universities do the bare minimum. What else is new!?

Use section 504 to help the disabled student, and their education can improve, in unlimited ways!

Michelle Ball, is a student attorney helping parents with 504 plans since the 1990s. As a lawyer focusing only on students and education, she can review 504 plans, develop accommodations and attend 504 meetings. She can stretch across California from her Sacramento office, to Fresno, Fort Bragg, Fremont, Pomona, Berkeley and many other locations.