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New Guidance Issued on Civil Rights of Students with Disabilities

Published February 21, 2017

By Sandi Rosenbaum, Special Education Advocate

In December 2016, the U.S. Department of Education has issued an updated Parent and Educator Resource Guide to Section 504 in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.  The guide brings together information published in a variety of guidance memos over recent years into a comprehensive reference document.  It is available at:

A student is eligible for 504 protections if they have a substantial limitation on any major life activity or bodily function, whether or not the disability limits the major life activity of learning.  For instance, a student with diabetes has a substantial limitation in endocrine system function.  The law specifically applies to students who have episodic impairments such as asthma, epilepsy and bipolar disorder.  It applies even if the student benefits from ameliorating measures such as medication, prosthetics, or an insulin pump (except ordinary eyeglasses).

The protections of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 apply to all students with disabilities, including all those who have IEPs pursuant to their identification as in need of special education programs and services through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  In some cases, the rights and protections available to students under Section 504 exceed those available under the IDEA, so it is important for parents to understand these additional protections.

Importantly, while IDEA protections are limited to the right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), Section 504 covers not only students’ educational rights, but protects against disability-based discrimination by all recipients of Federal funding.  Section 504 guarantees student equal access to athletic and extracurricular programming and protects against bullying and harassment.   Section 504 also specifically protects students and parents against retaliation for reporting a suspected incident of discrimination.

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act extends these same anti-discrimination provisions to all state and local governments even if they do not receive Federal funding.  In addition, Title II specifically affords students with disabilities a right to effective communication.  Students with major communication impairments may be entitled to accommodations or services under Title II that would not be afforded under IDEA or Section 504 alone.

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