Disability Defined by Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act

Students with mental or physical impairments qualify

A student in a wheelchair does schoolwork.
A student in a wheelchair does schoolwork. Blend Images - KidStock/Getty Images

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 not only defines what a disability is in the classroom but also protects students with disabilities from discrimination. The federal government enforces Section 504 in all programs or entities that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Education.

Broaden your understanding of what a disability means with this review of the federal government's definition.

Learn if this definition describes your child and how to exercise the rights afforded to students with disabilities under federal law.

Definition of Disability

A student is understood to have a disability as defined by Section 504 if she has a mental or physical impairment or a record of impairment. Students regarded as having such an impairment are also understood to have a disability.

In addition, the federal government considers students as disabled if they are substantially limited in their major life activities. This includes activities and abilities such as (but not limited to) self-care, breathing, walking, seeing, performing schoolwork, speaking and learning. Many students with learning disabilities do not appear to be substantially limited in life. In fact, it may not be obvious that they even have a disability or a disorder. Still, such students might need special services in school.

Students the Definition Excludes

A student is excluded from eligibility if his condition does not substantially limit a major life activity. For example, a medical diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) alone would not be sufficient for a child to qualify under Section 504 if the child has no problems in school.

The student must also demonstrate a need for special services in the classroom. Many students with ADHD do not need special services or special education classes. Instead, they might be given coping mechanisms by a counselor or a physician to manage the disorder entirely in mainstream classrooms.

Students with severe ADHD or less effective coping skills may need special services in school. This is typically determined through formal assessment, review of educational records, formal observations, medical data, adaptive behavior measures, and parent and teacher reports.

Inability to attend to instruction, tolerate a classroom environment or related learning difficulties are examples of problems that could qualify a child with ADHD as disabled. In this case, these problems would have to be significant enough to have a substantial impact on her learning.

Defining disability under Section 504 is more broad than the definition of a Free Appropriate Public Education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

IDEA specifies disabilities, including mental retardation, deafness, speech or language impairments, blindness, autism, traumatic brain injury and various learning disabilities.

Wrapping Up

If you're unsure whether your child has a disability, don't rely on your interpretation of the law alone to determine this. Discuss your concerns with your child's principal, teacher, counselor or physician. Find out what sorts of assessments or evaluations your child can have to determine if she is disabled. If your child does, in fact, have a disability, early intervention is key to helping her succeed.

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