Districts often ask a) what is the student’s mental or physical disability; b) does the student have a medical doctor’s letter to support their disability; c) how, if at all, does the disability impact the student in the educational setting. But those questions are not always broad enough to capture every student who is entitled to a 504 Plan.
For instance, sometimes districts believe that a child with a reading disability can not be eligible for a 504 Plan because it is not a “physical or mental impairment.” A student with a reading disability may need only the accommodation of extended time and/or text-to-speech technology as an accommodation which they could and should receive under a 504 Plan, but often school districts falsely believe that a reading disability is not a “mental impairment” and the student is not eligible for a 504 Plan. The truth is that a reading disability qualifies as a “mental impairment” under Section 504 because it relates to mental processing. It also may be accommodated under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Here’s some things schools must do to get information on a student’s disability: a) conduct evaluations and re-evaluations; b) obtain detailed information from various sources (for example, family members, doctors, school nurses, teachers, social workers); c) observe interpersonal relationships among students and interactions between staff and students in order to identify and address signs of a hostile school environment and bullying; d) consider structural changes and improvements to buildings and facilities; the purchase of new instructional technology; the placement or location of curricular and extra-curricular programs and activities both on and off campus; and the use of certain curricula or particular instructional methods, tools, and devices; e) communicate with parents about the student’s needs in school.
Training is highly critical. A district’s failure to adhere to the law in this area could lead to a complaint of discrimination based on disability and even violations of the U.S. Constitution. The issues surrounding Section 504 are complex and schools must ensure that students with disabilities are properly identified in a timely manner and are consistently provided the services and other protections to which they are entitled under the law. Further making this area of the law even more complex is that bullying and harassment of a student based on disability may deny a student equal educational opportunities under the law. A school is responsible for promptly and effectively addressing harassment about which it knows, or reasonably should have known.
One area where I’ve very often seen school districts unlawfully deny students a 504 Plan relates to students who are high-achievers with disabilities (usually ADHD and/or a reading disability). For example, very bright high school students who have performed well academically since elementary school sometimes hit a wall in middle or high school and require 504 Plans for the first time. Often these students either 1) can not finish or perform to their ability on timed tests despite studying enormously hard; and/or 2) because they study such long hours to try to compensate for their difficulty on timed tests, they develop pretty severe anxiety or depression. Sometimes districts think these students or their parents are seeking extended time to get an unfair advantage. I would strongly advise districts to look more deeply into these situations because students suffer and disputes arise otherwise.
This post is adapted from an Interview with Allison Hertog which was printed in a national publication called “Special Ed Connection” on September 16, 2022.