Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: What You Need to Know

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD
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At a Glance

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil rights law that bans disability discrimination.

  • It’s also the law that provides 504 plans.

  • Under Section 504, students with disabilities have the right to reasonable accommodations.

If your child has learning and thinking differences, you may have heard of a law with an odd-sounding name: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. What does this law do? And how can it help your child?

Section 504 Fact Sheet
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The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the country’s first civil rights law for people with disabilities. Section 504 is the part of that law that gives your child important rights in public and private schools. Read on to learn more.

The Purpose of Section 504

Section 504 has two main purposes. One is about removing barriers for students with disabilities in K–12 public schools. The other is about protecting kids and adults with disabilities from discrimination in school settings and beyond.

1. Provide FAPE for students with disabilities in K–12 public schools. FAPE stands for “free appropriate public education.” Under Section 504, “appropriate” means providing supports to give a child access to the same education their peers are getting.

Like the federal special education law IDEA, Section 504 requires schools to find and evaluate students who are believed to have disabilities. Schools must do so at no cost to parents.

If the school determines that a child is eligible under Section 504, it must provide appropriate services and supports. This happens through a 504 plan, again at no cost to parents.

The goal of 504 plans is to remove barriers to learning for students with disabilities. Schools must meet the needs of these students just as they meet the needs of students without disabilities.

Keep in mind that “appropriate” has a slightly different meaning under Section 504 than it does under IDEA, which also guarantees FAPE. Under IDEA, it means providing special education services through an IEP to meet a child’s unique needs. Learn about the differences between IEPs and 504 plans.

2. Prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in “programs and activities” that get federal funding. “Programs and activities” refers to anything done by the federal government, from running national parks to collecting taxes. But it also covers many private organizations you might not think of.

For example, Section 504 applies to airports. It applies to housing funded with federal grants. And it applies to all K–12 public schools, and most private schools and colleges, so long as they receive federal funding (most do).

Section 504 also gives people the right to reasonable accommodations in these programs and activities. Accommodations are changes that give people equal access—for example, providing an audiobook version of a national park guide.

However, the law also says that people with disabilities don’t have a right to accommodations that would “fundamentally alter” an activity. Nor do they have the right to accommodations that create an “undue burden.” For example, adding an extra base in baseball might be a fundamental alteration to baseball. But many accommodations for people with learning and thinking differences, like using text-to-speech to help with reading, don’t fundamentally change an activity.

Protections Under Section 504: Who’s Eligible

Section 504 is very broad in who it covers. It protects any student who has “a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Life activities can include everyday activities like eating, sleeping and walking. But they can also include learning, concentrating, thinking and communicating.

Most kids with learning and thinking differences are protected by Section 504. The law can cover students with learning disabilities like dyslexia, and those with ADHD, anxiety and many other challenges.

It’s important to know that kids are protected even if they take medication that helps with their symptoms. Section 504 also protects kids who are perceived as having a disability, even if they don’t have one.

Here’s an example: The director of the school choir tells the assistant director not to pick a certain child for choir because the child has trouble paying attention and the director doesn’t want “ADD kids.” It doesn’t matter whether the child does or doesn’t have ADHD. It still counts as discrimination.

The Relationship of Section 504 to Other Laws

The protections of Section 504 sometimes overlap with two other major laws. These laws are the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and IDEA.

ADA extends Section 504’s protections to employers and to public spaces. These include places like stores and museums. ADA and Section 504 cover the same people. So, if your child is covered by 504, ADA protections also apply.

IDEA is different. It can offer students an IEP with special education services tailored to their unique needs. However, it’s harder to qualify for IDEA than for Section 504. Just because a child is protected by Section 504 doesn’t mean that child is protected by IDEA. And IDEA doesn’t apply to college.

It’s helpful to know how these laws overlap so you can advocate for your child. Learn more about the differences between Section 504, ADA and IDEA. And get quick information by downloading a one-page IDEA fact sheet or ADA fact sheet.

How to Access Protections Under Section 504

If you think your child has been discriminated against because of a disability, there are steps you can take. You can file a complaint to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for the U.S. Department of Education. (Check out the OCR website for more information.) You can also file a lawsuit, though it can be expensive. And it’s important to talk to an attorney before doing so.

If your child is in K–12 public school and you’re interested in a 504 plan, you can request an evaluation. The evaluation process can be quite involved. Often, schools will do a comprehensive evaluation, looking at all your child’s needs. But the school may also choose to conduct a shortened 504 plan evaluation.

Key Takeaways

  • The two main purposes of Section 504 are to prohibit disability discrimination and to provide FAPE to K–12 students with disabilities.

  • Section 504 applies to public schools, as well as to most colleges and private schools.

  • Most kids with learning and thinking differences are protected by Section 504.

About the Author

About the Author

Andrew M.I. Lee, JD 

is an editor and former attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Melody Musgrove, EdD 

served as director of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the U.S. Department of Education.

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