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Introduction

Forty-five years after publication of the regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the landmark disability civil rights law, the U.S. Department of Education announced plans to gather public input on possible amendments to those regulations in order to strengthen and protect the rights of students with disabilities.

Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in public and private programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance, including schools and postsecondary institutions.

History

The earliest legislation benefitting people with disabilities was the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1920, passed after World War I, that provided services for all Americans with disabilities.

Section 504 brought the language of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The law prohibited any entity receiving federal funding (such as government offices, schools, universities, hospitals, and post offices) from discriminating against someone because of a disability.

The Nixon and Ford administrations sought to stall the regulations due to concerns about costs and enforcements. The delay in signing touched off protests in several states. In 1972, Disabled in Action demonstrated on Madison Avenue, New York City with a sit-in protest. Demonstrations were also held by disabled activists in Washington D.C.

Disability rights groups, especially the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) advocated to keep the regulations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in place unchanged. In 1975 a federal lawsuit was filed to force the agency to act. In July 1976, a federal district for Washington DC ruled that the regulations should be issued “with no further unreasonable delays.”

In April 1997, hundreds of people with disabilities and their supporters held protests at several regional offices of the predecessor agency of the Department of Education. They demanded the immediate approval of the long-delayed regulations implementing Section 504 to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities.

The protests at the Department’s San Francisco office lasted nearly a month. On April 28, 1977, the Secretary formally signed the regulations without change. They were formally published on May 9, 1977.

The Department’s Section 504 regulations were the first issued by the federal government that addressed the treatment of people with disabilities through a civil rights framework, rather than through solely a medical or vocational framework.

In the years that followed, these regulations served as a model for the regulations of other federal agencies and were the foundation for many of the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Source: Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund

Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The 504 occupation created a generation of disability rights activists and advocates who would go on to draft the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The ADA picked up from where 504 left off, handling the more difficult, complex situations.

Using Section 504 as a template, the framers of the ADA sought to extend provisions that now applied to government to much of the private sector (notably private employers, stores, hotels, and restaurants).

The new law also specifically stated that the ADA would not amend or weaken Section 504. Because of being drafted based on 504, the ADA also framed disability in the context of civil rights rather than as a medical need, using terms such as “discrimination,” “reasonable accommodation,” and “otherwise qualified.”

Section 504

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a national law that protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability. The non-discrimination requirements of the law apply to employers that receive financial assistance from any Federal department or agency.

The prohibitions against discrimination apply to service availability, accessibility, delivery, employment, the administrative activities and responsibilities of organizations receiving Federal financial assistance.

A recipient of Federal financial assistance may not, on the basis of disability:

  • Deny qualified individuals the opportunity to participate in or benefit from federally funded programs, services, or other benefits.
  • Deny access to programs, services, benefits or opportunities to participate as a result of physical barriers.
  • Deny employment opportunities, including hiring, promotion, training, and fringe benefits, for which they are otherwise entitled or qualified.

Source: U.S. Department of Education

Who is protected from discrimination?

Section 504 protects qualified individuals with disabilities. Under this law, individuals with disabilities are defined as persons with a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities.

In addition to meeting the above definition, for purposes of receiving services, education or training, qualified individuals with disabilities are persons who meet normal and essential eligibility requirements.

For purposes of employment, qualified individuals with disabilities are persons who, with reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job for which they have applied or have been hired to perform.

Anniversary of Section 504

“While the world has undergone enormous changes since 1977, the Department’s Section 504 regulations have remained, with few exceptions, unaltered. As we observe the 45th anniversary of these important regulations in 2022, it is time to start the process of updating them. Just as in 1977, the voices of people with disabilities must be heard and incorporated as we engage in that work.”

– Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon

Source: U.S. Department of Education

Requirements for Educational Programs

K-12 Schools

Section 504 pertains to any local educational agency, system of vocational education, or other school system. The law prohibits the denial of public education participation, or enjoyment of the benefits offered by public school programs because of a child’s disability.

Although the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) also applies to K-12 schools, the existence of IDEA does not mean the Rehabilitation Act is superfluous. IDEA only protects a subset of children and youth who have disabilities—those who satisfy its definition for “child with a disability”.

The definition of disability under Section 504 is broader than that of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, so some children who do not meet the IDEA definition of disability are served under Section 504.

Source: U.S. Department of Education

Broad requirements for K-12 schools and school districts under Section 504

  • Section 504 requires school districts to provide Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to children with disabilities, who may benefit from public education, within the individual district’s jurisdiction.
  • The school district must identify the child’s educational needs and provide any regular or special education to satisfy the child’s educational needs.
  • The district must develop an education plan for each child with a disability – called the 504 plan.
  • The plan covers accommodations, services, and support the child will be receiving in order to have access to education at school.

Higher Education

Section 504 was the first national civil rights legislation that provided equal access for students with disabilities to higher education institutions receiving federal financial assistance.

Both public and private colleges and universities supported by federal grants and funding programs must comply with Section 504.

The common way higher education institutions are linked to federal funds is through the federal student aid programs.

Broad requirements for Higher Education institutions under Section 504

  • Higher education institutions are required to make their programs accessible to qualified students with disabilities.
  • Qualified students with disabilities are determined by the admissions criteria of the individual higher education institution.
  • Students wishing to receive accommodations must initiate the process, which varies per higher education institution.
  • The colleges and universities are required to make reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities who attend their institutions.

Source: U.S. Department of Education

Violations of Section 504

Violations of Section 504 in the educational environment can be addressed locally with the education agency or with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education.

Violations of Section 504 can result in a loss of the federal funding. According to the Department individuals may also file a private right of action. Thus, Section 504 is enforced by OCR.

For more than four decades, OCR has worked to eliminate disability discrimination in schools—including public pre-K through high schools, as well as postsecondary schools—by investigating complaints alleging violations of the regulations, conducting proactive investigations, issuing policy guidance, and providing technical assistance.

Public initiative undertaken by the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights

As part of the President’s Unity Agenda, the Office of Civil Rights announced plans to listen to and solicit public inputs on improvements to the disability rights regulations from students with disabilities as well as those who have mental health needs and their advocates.

Why this initiative now?

  • Section 504’s regulations have remained with few exceptions unaltered since 1977. On the 45th anniversary of these regulations, the Department has set out to update them by hearing the voices of people with disabilities and mental health needs.
  • On April 28, 2022, the Department announced a resolution agreement with the second-largest school district in the country, Los Angeles Unified School District which requires the school district to take steps necessary to ensure that students with disabilities receive educational services, including compensatory services, during and resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Source: U.S. Department of Education

How codemantra helps?

codemantra is a global leader in Intelligent Document Processing (IDP). Its AI powered platform automates digital document accessibility compliance, captures, and extracts actionable insights from raw data, and transforms documents into any desired digital format.

codemantra helps K-12 school districts, schools, and higher education institutions provide accessible learning content to students with disabilities in compliance with requirements of Section 504, ADA, and WCAG 2.0 Level AA guidelines.

The platform has a suite of independent modules that assist in accessibility assessment, remediation & quality control by a combination of AI-powered engine and human intelligence.

codemantra’s accessibilityInsight™ platform provides end-to-end accessibility compliance for digital documents.

accessibilityInsight

  • accessibilityCheck: Audit and assess digital documents in any format (PDF, Excel, Word, etc.) for accessibility compliance against PDF U/A and WCAG 2.1 Level AA guidelines.
  • accessibilityFix: AI-powered creation of document structure, extraction of metadata, and automated tagging without human intervention to achieve compliance.
  • accessibilityReview: Intuitive UI allows users to add enhanced meta-tagging, enter custom alt-text, and generate compliance report.

Conclusion

The US Department of Education and OCR are committed to fulfilling Congress’ promises in Section 504 and to advancing progress in partnership with people with disabilities and the full educational community.

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