How Section 504, An Education Accessibility Law, May Change

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The government is currently soliciting input from citizens to address inadequacies in Section 504. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects the rights of students with disabilities. Since the law hasn’t undergone significant changes since 1977, the US Department of Education is considering updates. With modifications, the legislation could better serve the needs of today’s students.

The push to modernize the 45-year-old law coincides with the Biden Administration’s expressed commitment to improving accessibility. Experts have been urging updates and remedies for inequities that the current law allows in US schools.

There is currently an open comment period, which allows people with disabilities, parents of children with disabilities and educators the opportunity to suggest amendments. 

Automatic Sync Technologies (AST) and its leadership are highly invested in driving accessibility forward. We’re following the legislative updates to ensure our solutions and partners in the education sector are adapting to Section 504 modifications that impact universities, schools and students. 

Section 504 open comment period 

Since Section 504 has impacted student accommodations for decades, members of the education field and people with disabilities have valuable insights into the way Section 504 performs in practice. 

The comment period is open, and interested parties can send their comments to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR). OCR requested that citizens submit longer, more comprehensive suggestions by the end of June 2022, but stated that it would review all comments submitted before it issues any notices of rulemaking. 

Anyone interested in submitting a comment should note that the information they share will become public. Submissions shouldn’t include sensitive or personal information. 

Even prior to the announcement, some members of the education community had been expressing their thoughts on Section 504’s limitations. For instance, there has long been confusion regarding its overlap with other accessibility legislation.

Exploring the role of Section 504 in education

Section 504 is a civil rights law that protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination. The federal statute applies to schools and other organizations that receive federal funding. Under Section 504, schools must provide a free appropriate public education to students with emotional, physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities. Those services may include specific seating arrangements, extra time to take tests, specialized accessibility tools or modifications to course assignments. 

In elementary and secondary school, students who qualify for accommodations through Section 504 receive a 504 plan. A separate law, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), is another statute that demands accommodations for students with disabilities. Students who qualify under IDEA receive individual education plans, which often include more robust accommodations than 504 plans. 

IDEA’s definition of qualifying disabilities is more narrow than the definition in Section 504. In many cases, students will qualify for both. However, if a student does not qualify for a plan under IDEA, they may still be eligible for a 504 plan. 

Additionally, it’s important to note that IDEA only applies to students through secondary school. At the university level, students still receive protections through Section 504 but lose the assistance available to younger students under IDEA. 

Unfortunately, it’s likely that many students who need and qualify for either of these accommodations aren’t getting them. Studies also suggest considerable disparities in the number of students who have 504 or IEP plans at different schools.

Income inequality and racial disparities in disability services

A recent study found that the average rate for 504 plans is 2.7% nationally. However, the numbers vary significantly between the highest and lowest income families. For families in the top 1%, the rate of 504 plans was 5.8%, compared with just 1.5% for schools servicing the lowest income families.

Statistics also indicate racial disparities. For example, in Arizona, predominantly white schools have three times the rate of 504 plans compared to schools with populations that are 75% or more people of color. 

The gap highlights some of the issues with Section 504 accessibility. Unfortunately, families often need to work to get their children the accommodations they need from their public schools. Pushing administrators to approve a 504 plan can require costly outside testing and, in some cases, litigation. Additionally, families need to be aware of their rights in the first place. Much of the time, parents don’t know about the options or the resources available through their schools. Therefore, these parents don’t know that they could or should be advocating for their schools to do more for their children. 

These issues impacted students even before the pandemic further complicated education, especially for the most vulnerable populations.

COVID setbacks for students with disabilities

Researchers found that the COVID-related school closures led to students falling behind. While all students displayed some setbacks, children with disabilities had higher rates of incomplete assignments and failed more of their courses. Also, schools should have still been offering accommodations during remote learning. In reality, many families who had IEP or 504 plans stated that their children received none of the services their plans require. 

In conjunction with the lack of services, these students also faced high levels of stress, social isolation and emotionally challenging situations. As schools reopened, both students who already had plans and others who didn’t needed more assistance. In particular, mental health support became vital for many students. The crisis highlighted the need for better, more accessible and equitable accommodations for students with disabilities.

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Making Section 504 stronger

Section 504 may not be as strong as it needs to be. Still, as of 2018/2019, 1.38 million students were getting assistance from their public schools because of this law. Another 7.3 students qualified for IEPs under IDEA. It’s possible millions more students qualify for protections and resources through Section 504 but don’t know that they have the option.

There are ways to expand access to Section 504 plans and make the accommodations more helpful. Here are a few examples of potential upgrades for this law. 

Improving knowledge

Currently, many parents with school-age children aren’t aware of the options available to assist students with disabilities. Boosting awareness campaigns that address this law and students’ rights could give families the tools they need to self-advocate. 

Additionally, some parents don’t speak English as their first language. Access to resources about 504 plans and IEPs in other languages could extend this knowledge to marginalized communities.

Providing more support

Schools should be offering more mental health services, especially in the wake of the last few years. However, Section 504 doesn’t designate funding to meet the law’s requirements. Adding a funding component to the law that makes resources available to schools could prevent administrators from being too frugal with necessary accommodations. This aspect is even more critical in low-income communities where schools rely on local tax revenues. In particular, schools would benefit from employing more psychologists, therapists and counselors to address students’ mental health challenges.

Creating enforcement mechanisms

Schools have a legal obligation to accommodate students with disabilities, but they rarely face the consequences when they neglect that duty. Policies that promote enforcement could prevent cases of neglect. The onus of holding a school accountable shouldn’t fall to the parents, many of whom don’t have the time or resources to serve as legal enforcers. 

Section 504 may look different in coming years. The law can better achieve its objectives through input from educators and families with intimate knowledge of school accommodations.

AST is an essential partner to schools and universities across the country that are providing effective, high-quality accommodations for students with disabilities. Contact us to learn how our captioning, transcription, audio description and other accessibility solutions can help your institution’s accessibility efforts. We can support your need to meet Section 504 requirements with technologies that better serve your entire student population.