Understanding Section 504’s eligibility criteria is crucial to compliant Section 504 accommodation delivery and implementation. Unlike special education, Section 504 does not expand rights or change the educational experience. Rather, Section 504 protects the general education experience and ensures that students are not discriminated against on account of disability.
Due to the lack of federal and state regulations regarding Section 504, determining eligibility can be a daunting process involving logistical and legal questions. As an education law attorney representing schools, I see these as among the most common questions educators face.
What is the Section 504 eligibility criteria? How should it be used?
The Section 504 eligibility criteria involves two questions:
Does a student present with a physical and/or mental impairment?
If so, does that physical and/or mental impairment substantially limit one or more major life activities?
How is the Criteria Defined?
Let’s define those terms:
“Physical impairment” ― means a diagnosis affecting one or more of the physical systems, such as the neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory, cardiovascular, etc. Section 504’s broad protections cover all of the body systems. Virtually any diagnosis, affecting any system, constitutes physical impairment.
“Mental impairment” ― means a diagnosis involving virtually any mental disorder listed in the DSM-5, including anxiety, cognitive impairment, brain syndrome, dystonia, oppositional defiant disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, attentional difficulties or somatoform disorder.
Given the broad nature of these definitions and how many different diagnoses committees may face, the diagnosis itself typically isn’t the tough issue in understanding eligibility. More importantly, committees need to identify data that shows student’s need.
After establishing a diagnosis that affects a body system or the mind, Section 504 committees need to identify the impact of that difficulty on a major life activity. Major life activities are construed broadly also, involving everyday actions like walking, talking, seeing, breathing, hearing, caring for oneself, working, eating, processing, learning – any activity one engages in regularly.
Is Section 504 a “Consolation Prize?”
Applying a real understanding of the eligibility criteria safeguards against the “consolation prize” phenomenon – offering Section 504 accommodations instead of special education. Unlike special education, Section 504 doesn’t provide clear rules or regulations that define its decision makers or the decision-making, eligibility process, itself. In the absence of such rules, getting Section 504 right means understanding and applying the right eligibility criteria, and not simply issuing plans to all former special education students.
Are Any Students “Presumptively Eligible” for 504 Plans?
There is no presumptive eligibility under 504 – simply presenting a diagnosis does not “get you” a plan. In order to affect a compliant process, schools need to consistently implement the right eligibility criteria.
Educators need to recognize that the eligibility process requires consideration of the impact of disability. That means, in order to be eligible for accommodation under a Section 504 plan, students must show symptoms.
When determining Section 504 eligibility in a school, should we only look at activities that impact “learning?”
Section 504 eligibility is broad and involves consideration of all major life activities, not just “learning.” As we continue to discuss, Section 504 protects against disability discrimination so that all students, both disabled and non-disabled, may access the same education. The major life activities that may be considered through the criteria are broad. Learning is certainly involved, but so is walking up the steps to get on a school bus, sitting on that school bus, developing appropriate peer relations so the student may ride that bus successfully to school, climbing off that school bus and being able to walk down the sidewalk to get into the school, and walking through the hallways to the classroom where the student will engage in learning.
To Sum Things Up.
So, where are we? Let’s remember the eligibility criteria for Section 504 is different than the eligibility criteria for IDEA. Remember there are criteria. Remember the eligibility criteria has two primary questions, involving physical and/or mental difficulties. And such physical and/or mental impairment must substantially limit one or more major life activity. Without data that satisfies the eligibility criteria, you should not find students eligible, or provide plans. However, at all times, and with all students, we may never treat any students differently.
Do you have the data you need to make legally sound Section 504 eligibility determinations? Consider how Frontline 504 Program Management can help you efficiently collect, use and securely archive your student data.
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