504 plans get their name from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a broad civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in any agency, school, or institution receiving federal funds.
Section 504 requires schools to eliminate barriers that would prevent a student from participating fully in the programs and services offered in the general curriculum by providing reasonable accommodations. Those accommodations may be documented in a plan called a 504 plan.
Having learning or physical disabilities is no one’s choice but it is their right to have access to the quality of life that everyone else enjoys, and to ensure there is no discrimination for challenged individuals, 504 plans provide protection and adequate coverage so they can perform as normal individuals.
So, if you haven’t had much experience with these plans, you may be wondering what qualifies for a 504 Plan in your classroom. Legally, children with special needs can receive a 504 Plan if they meet one of the following criteria:
- Have a physical or mental disability that limits one or more life activities.
- Have a record of a disability.
- Being regarded as having a disability.
In other words, the student must have or be perceived as having a disability that limits one or more significant areas of life – like communication, self-care, vision, breathing, learning, or working.
While Section 504 doesn’t list all the qualifying disabilities that would require a plan, it provides examples. This includes things like cerebral palsy, epilepsy, cancer, diabetes, anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, ADHD, allergies, asthma, and more.
The most important consideration is how these impairments limit the student’s ability to perform compared to the typical learner in your classroom.
To qualify for special education, students with disabilities must need specialized instruction to make progress in the general education curriculum. Some students with disabilities don’t meet the eligibility criteria for an IEP. But they may need support to have “equal access” and learn alongside their peers in general education. That’s what a 504 plan is for.
To qualify for a 504 plan, a student needs to have “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Life activities can include everyday activities like walking and breathing. But they can also include learning, concentrating, thinking, and communicating.
For parents it is important to know that, if your child’s teachers see a reason for a 504 evaluation, the school doesn’t need your permission. They just need to let you know that they are doing the evaluation and its results.
You can also ask for a Section 504 evaluation for your child. To get one, write to your school district’s 504 contact person. You can call your child’s school to find out who this person is.
In some school districts, you can also ask the school counselor for this evaluation.
If your child is approved for 504 services, your child’s school will work with you to create a 504 plan for your child. This plan is similar to an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and is specific to your child’s needs.
If your request for evaluation and testing is not approved, the school must tell you about their reasons in writing and let you know what you can do to appeal their decision. Or, if you disagree with the school’s evaluation and testing results, you can ask for a “due process hearing” or file a complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights on the OCR Complaint Assessment System web page. Ask the school administration for a copy of the Notice of Parent and Student Rights Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Accommodations and modifications under Section 504 include many different things, and we’ve listed some examples below.
Examples of accommodations are:
- Physical changes to the school that are necessary for your child to be able to use the school building, such as installing a wheelchair ramp, handrails, or motorized doors. The school could also adjust your child’s schedule, so all their classes are on a single floor.
- Changes in rules, policies, or procedures to let your child have the same chances to participate in school activities as their peers without disabilities. An example is letting a child with diabetes have a snack in the classroom or letting a child with ADHD stand up when needed during class.
- Learning aids, like time with a literacy specialist, using a calculator on a math test, or typing an essay instead of writing it out by hand.
- Examples of modifications are: Shortening your child’s day to help them manage their anxiety.
- Changing gym class requirements for a child with asthma or another physical disability.
Examples of testing (both classroom and standardized tests) accommodations are:
- Different test formats, such as test printed in Braille or a large print test booklet and answer sheet.
- Having someone read test questions aloud to a student who has trouble reading.
- Letting students who cannot write say their answers aloud to a person who writes them down.
- Increasing the amount of time, a student is given to complete the test or assignment – or giving them extra breaks.
Your child can also get accommodations for college entrance tests, such as the SAT or ACT. They will have to send in a letter from their doctor or school as proof that they need accommodations. The process often takes a long time, so be sure to plan ahead.
Some students who receive special education services under IDEA or Section 504 can take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness Alternate 2 (also known as the STAAR-Alt) instead of the STAAR test. These are the state-mandated standardized tests for public school students. If your child needs to take the STAAR-Alt, it needs to be written in their IEP or Section 504 plan.
The STAAR-Alt is individualized for each student’s needs and is given over a period of time that meets the child’s unique abilities and attention to tasks.
Some parents have their children opt out of STAAR testing. You might be told by your child’s school that you are not allowed to opt out, and that your child won’t move to the next grade if they don’t take the test. Some organizations say that this is not a legal choice.
While some suggest a 504 is better than an IEP, the rules around 504 plans are much looser than they are for IEPs. For that reason, parents can miss or misunderstand some of the key steps in the process.
As a teacher you will want to make sure that your parents know the common pitfalls that they may run into.
Here are five common pitfalls parents run into.
- Schools sometimes skim over the details of what a 504 plan can include. They may not explain that it can provide, and special services like those in an IEP. Prepare in advance by learning as much you can about your options. You can then use that knowledge to ask that specific kinds of help become part of your child’s 504 plan.
- The law doesn’t guarantee parents the right to attend their child’s 504 plan meetings. However, many schools are happy to include parents. But it’s best not to wait for an invitation. If the school tells you they’re evaluating your child for a 504 plan, let them know that you want to be part of any meetings where your child’s needs will be discussed.
Once your child has a 504 plan, stay proactive. Ask for a copy of the 504 plan. Make sure your child’s annual 504 plan meeting doesn’t take place without you. Contact your child’s 504 committee leader or principal early in the school year to get the meeting on your calendar—and theirs.
- Some schools present parents with a standard 504 plan for students with a certain disability. They claim, “It has helped many children like yours.” However, the needs of kids with the same disability can vary. That means a standard 504 plan for any other disability isn’t very useful.
You might get some ideas from a standard 504 plan, but your child’s plan needs to be tailored to meet his individual needs. It may help if you come prepared to discuss your child’s specific areas of weakness, along with ideas of some accommodations you think might be useful.
- After jumping through hoops to get your child’s 504 plan in place, it’s natural to take a breather. Don’t let go completely! Make sure your child’s 504 plan is followed. Talk with your child about school and monitor homework and test scores. Is the school providing the promised accommodations, modifications, and services? Take any concerns to your child’s teacher or 504 committee leader.
- The 504 committee should review and revise your child’s 504 plan every year. As your child moves through school, he’ll master some skills but struggle with new ones. The academic load will also increase. You’ll want his 504-plan updated to document his changing needs and the accommodations, modifications, and services he’ll need to succeed.