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Bring Clarity to Section 504

Special Education

  Guest Post by John B. Comegno II 

For many educators, understanding Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 remains difficult and raises several questions, such as:

  • What is the practical intent of this law?

  • Are Section 504 accommodation plans simply “light” IEPs? How can this law ― passed in the waning days of the Vietnam War ― apply to public school students and employees today, when the original meaning of the law was to protect disabled veterans returning from the conflict?

  • Is a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) related to Section 504?

  • Are the rights of special education and Section 504-eligible students different?

  • How is Section 504 different from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), when these laws use the same terms, but appear to impose different requirements on schools?

Since the great majority of states do not provide Section 504 regulations, and the federal law itself does not establish clear process rules, educators today are left grappling with the practical implementation of this near 50-year-old law without clarity.

But as a disability accommodation “gatekeeper” in your school, how do you decide which accommodation vehicle to use ― IEP or Section 504 plan ― without clarity? How do you identify and follow 504-related best practices to help you determine eligibility?

Gaining a better understanding of the background of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and how that history can inform your planning for students today, can help.

What is 504’s Goal?


A common misunderstanding of Section 504 is that the law intends to expand rights of public school students. That, in some way similar to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA), Section 504 students receive additional process and instructional rights, which make their daily education something different or something “more” than general education students. Educators need to understand that Section 504 students are general education students, and that, differently than the IDEIA, which aims to create specific, individualized learning experiences for special education students, Section 504 simply aims to ensure access to the same general education for eligible students that all public-school students are entitled to receive.

504 vs. Special Education

It’s important to understand how we apply the Section 504 eligibility criteria, and how the criteria differ from the special education formula. Do we find eligibility simply when a student produces a doctor’s note? Understanding the intention of Section 504, and how it’s different from special education, is crucial in compliance today. When we speak to 504's direction, we ought to be mindful that, similar to our best practices in IDEIA, focusing on individual need, process and progress, 504 also focuses on individual need ― there has to be a need. Section 504 eligibility and accommodation isn't driven solely by a medical diagnosis.

An Important Takeaway to Help You Manage 504 Requirements

Practical implementation for Section 504 responsibilities is difficult because the law does not provide process rules. Unlike the process established under the IDEIA, Section 504 prohibits discrimination, but does not explain how ― the law provides no definition of the decision-making body or notice and consent rules; it doesn’t identify who or how data should be collected, or set a review time period or process.

Perhaps most surprising, the law does not use the words “Section 504 Plan” even once. Because of this lack of specific guidelines, your school should rely heavily on strong internal procedures and understand and apply best practices. Arm your district staff with the relevant and current information they need to ensure access for our disabled students. In this way, our colleagues remain compliant, and together we avoid risk.

Does your district have air-tight internal practices in place to ensure 504-eligible students have access to the same general education that all public-school students are entitled to receive? See how Frontline 504 Program Management can help your team serve students and avoid risk. 

About John B. Comegno II

John Comegno is Founder and President of the Comegno Law Group, P.C., and is recognized nationally as a leading School Law practitioner, representing public and independent schools, Educational Services Commissions, Special Service School Districts, and third-party education vendors. A nationally-recognized lecturer on School Law who has lectured to thousands of educational professionals across the United States, John regularly presents to conventions, professional groups, associations, public and independent schools, and other audiences