Transitioning from High School to College: A Spotlight on Section 504

 

MODULE GOALS: To provide students with an overview of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Workforce Investment Act) and how it protects your academic rights from high school to postsecondary education.

OBJECTIVES:
  1. To highlight Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, particularly how it protects the rights of students at the secondary and postsecondary levels.
  2. To examine the differences between Section 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
  3. To understand the difference in educational rights of a high school student versus those of a college student.
  4. To identify who you can contact at the postsecondary level to make sure your academic rights are being met under Section 504.
INTRODUCTION:
 
As a student in high school, you may receive special education services and experience success in a supportive environment. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which mandates that your school identify your disability and accommodate your individual academic needs, has protected your rights as a student. Since your educational programming has been the product of this special education law, you may not be aware of other legislation that protects your rights as a student.
 
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Workforce Investment Act) is a civil rights law that prevents any federally funded organization from discriminating against people on the basis of disability. Virtually every school, whether elementary, secondary, or postsecondary, receives some amount of federal funding, which means they must be in compliance with Section 504. While it is often one of the lesser known pieces of education law, it is no less important. Section 504 ensures that students with disabilities at all educational levels receive equal educational opportunities. It protects the rights of students with disabilities who are not covered under IDEA. In addition, IDEA provides access to special education services throughout elementary and secondary schooling but no longer covers students at the postsecondary level. 

Now you are preparing for college and wondering what rights you will have at that level. Your rights as a student change as you enter college. You will no longer benefit from guided academic planning, and you will not have the same level of support that you previously received from school personnel. It is now your responsibility to advocate for disability support services and appropriate academic accommodations. You will be better prepared to do this when you understand how Section 504 protects your rights from high school to the college setting. 

KEY QUESTIONS:
  1. What legislation protects me as a high school student?
  2. Why is Section 504 important to me?
  3. What does the term “qualified individual” mean in reference to who is protected by Section 504?
  4. Because I receive special education services in high school, does Section 504 entitle me to disability support services in college?
  5. Under Section 504, is my college responsible for identifying and accommodating my disability as was done in high school?
  6. Will anybody help me in college to make sure I am supported?
  7. In Section 504, what does the term “reasonable accommodation” mean?
  8. What should I do if I feel that the school is discriminating against me for having a disability?

What legislation protects me as a high school student?

Through the completion of high school, students with disabilities are protected by three main pieces of legislation:

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA)
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
  • Section 504 of the Workforce Investment Act (Section 504)
 
IDEA

You are probably most familiar with IDEA. This is the nation’s special education law, which protects the rights of children with disabilities from birth through the age of twenty-one. Students are no longer covered under IDEA after they leave high school, whether through graduation or staying in school to age-out by age twenty-two. Students are provided a free appropriate public education in the most suitable environment, whether regular or special education classrooms. IDEA mandates specialized instruction for students who are having academic difficulties. If you currently have an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which is goal-oriented educational planning to enhance special education experiences, it is because of IDEA. Another beneficial aspect of IDEA is its required evaluation services to diagnose disabilities and identify necessary accommodations. IDEA provides some funding to schools to provide special education and related services to students with disabilities. Students have to meet the requirements for a disability as defined in IDEA.

 
ADA

Another piece of legislation that you probably have heard of is the ADA. Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination within educational settings on the basis of disability. Virtually every school, whether the high school you attend or the college you are interested in attending, has to comply with the provisions of the ADA. Students have to meet the requirements for a disability as defined in the ADA.

Section 504 of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA)

The piece of legislation that you probably know least about is Section 504. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a national civil rights law that protects qualified individuals from being discriminated against on account of their disability. Any group or organization that receives federal funding is required by law to follow the nondiscrimination requirements of Section 504. The majority of schools, (elementary, secondary, and postsecondary), receive some federal funding and therefore must abide by Section 504 provisions. This means that by law those schools cannot deny you access to an education because you have a disability. To be in compliance with Section 504, schools must provide students with disabilities equal opportunities to obtain the same achievement outcome as students without disabilities. If you currently have a Section 504 Plan, which is similar to IEPs under IDEA, it is because of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 does not fund any services for students with disabilities, but a school that is out of compliance (i.e., discriminating on account of disability) can lose its federal funding. Students have to meet the requirements for a disability as defined in Section 504.

The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 was developed “to consolidate, coordinate, and improve employment, training, literacy, and vocational rehabilitation programs” (P.L. 105-220). Title IV of WIA includes amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and requires that there are linkages between programs under WIA and the Rehabilitation Act. These linkages mean that Title IV of WIA ensures that services for adults with disabilities comply with the requirements of Section 504. Individuals with disabilities who are receiving vocational services under WIA are provided the same anti-discrimination protections that are provided under Section 504.

Why is Section 504 important to me?

Section 504 is important to the students who do not qualify for services under IDEA but are experiencing some problem at school related to having a disability. These problems could be associated with academics, the lay-out of the school building, or extracurricular activities. For example, a student whose disability prevents him or her from physically gaining access to a part of a school building or who is discriminated against due to having a contagious disease may rely on protection under Section 504.

While it may seem that Section 504 only impacts a select number of students in specific cases, it may be more important to you than you realize. If you are planning on going to college, you will no longer have access to the same rights that you did while in high school. This is because IDEA does not cover students beyond high school. In college, you are protected by Section 504, as well as the ADA, which both ensure that you are not discriminated against on account of your disability. You are no longer entitled to a free public education or the same level of academic support that you previously received in high school. At the collegiate level, you do not receive the same protections. Attending college is a choice and costs money to attend, which is different than the free public education to which you were provided through the twelfth grade. Section 504 makes sure that colleges do not turn students away on account of having a disability. Within college, Section 504 is also related to the academic accommodations and supports that you receive. However, your college must determine that you are a qualified individual in order to receive these supports.

What does the term “qualified individual” mean in reference to who is protected by Section 504?

Every piece of legislation has its own eligibility requirements for what constitutes a disability. For Section 504, an individual with a disability, whether at the elementary, secondary, or postsecondary level, is defined as:

Any person who has a physical or mental impairment which significantly limits one or more major life activities, such as seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, walking, learning, thinking, reading, concentrating, communicating, working, performing manual tasks, or caring for oneself (National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, 2010).

Students who meet this definition of disability are protected from discrimination under Section 504 if their school receives any federal funds. At the postsecondary level, the term “qualified individual” means that a student must meet the same admission requirements as students without disabilities. In regard to employment, the term “qualified individual” also has meaning. Employees must not only meet Section 504’s definition of disability, but they must be able to complete the essential functions of the job with reasonable accommodations.

Because I receive special education services in high school, does Section 504 entitle me to disability support services in college?

There is no legislation at the postsecondary level that entitles you to the same level of academic support that you receive in high school. This means that if you have an IEP, Section 504 Plan, or any accommodations or modifications, they will not necessarily transfer into the college setting. Many students make the mistake of thinking that their IEPs will entitle them to similar services in college. The IEP is a legally binding document in high school but has no power at the postsecondary level. In fact, the determination of disability status in college is different than what it is in high school. Colleges have their own eligibility criteria for determining whether students have a disability that can be accommodated within their classrooms. This is based on the definition of disability in Section 504.

Under Section 504, is my college responsible for identifying and accommodating my disability as was done in high school?

At the postsecondary level, you are responsible for seeking out disability services, which is a change from the guidance you received in high school. In high school, you had the support of your teachers, counselors, transition specialists, administration, and your parents. They were responsible for recognizing whether you were having academic difficulties that may be related to a disability. Your school was then charged with providing you the tools necessary to succeed in school (i.e., accommodations and modifications). Communication with your family was an integral part of the process. In college, you are responsible for yourself. Your professors are not responsible for identifying your disability. They will not communicate with school counselors, administration, or your family on your behalf. You cannot rely on your family members to help you get support for your disability in college. Instead, you have to be a self-advocate and seek out help. This includes getting your college to recognize your disability and accommodate it.

Will anybody help me in college to make sure I am supported?

While you are responsible for your academic success in college, you do have support to make sure your civil rights as a student are being met. Schools should have staff responsible for assisting students with disabilities. If the college has a disability support services office, they typically have a designated Disability Services Coordinator. In the event that the school does not have a disability support office, they are required to have a 504 Coordinator or ADA Coordinator. This person is responsible for coordinating the school’s compliance with Section 504 or Title II of the ADA. This person helps you to communicate with school faculty, as well as helps to make sure you are receiving any reasonable accommodations that you need. In addition, the 504 Coordinator is responsible for teaching the faculty about reasonable accommodations and legal obligations to make sure the college is in compliance with Section 504. Lastly, the 504 Coordinator is available to assist you in resolving any issues or complaints related to perceived discrimination on account of having a disability.

In Section 504, what does the term “reasonable accommodation” mean?

In high school, academic accommodations and modifications are implemented to help you overcome the difficulties attributed to your disability. There is a difference between accommodations and modifications. Accommodations enable you to complete an assignment or test without changing the meaning of your score or altering the standards of learning. Modifications, on the other hand, change the actual assignment or test in a manner that alters the standards of learning (i.e., what is being taught to or expected from you). Colleges do not modify instruction, which means that they will not alter the standards of learning for you. You will be held to the same standards as your peers. Under Section 504, if they determine that you have a disability, they will provide you with accommodations so you receive equal educational opportunities. While they may adjust the way you receive information or demonstrate knowledge, they will not change the academic standards. 

Under Section 504, colleges are required by law to provide reasonable accommodations to students who they determine to have disabilities. “Reasonable” means that the school does not have to change the fundamental nature of a program or be subjected to undue financial hardship. In other words, schools cannot be expected to completely change programs or spend unreasonable amounts of money to accommodate a student. In addition, Section 504 mandates that colleges must provide accessible living quarters to students with disabilities if they provide dormitories for students without disabilities. The U.S. Department of Education provides examples of academic accommodations that a college may provide under Section 504 to make sure students with disabilities receive equal educational access (U.S. Department of Education, 2007): 

  • Reducing a course load
  • Substituting one course for another
  • Providing note takers, recording devices, or sign language interpreters
  • Extending time for test-taking
  • Offering priority registration for courses
  • Equipping school computers with screen-reading, voice recognition, or other adaptive software or hardware
  • Providing TTY in a dorm room if telephones are provided in other rooms

Postsecondary schools are not required to provide students accommodations of a personal nature, such as personal attendants, tutors, or individually prescribed devices (U.S. Department of Education, 2007).

What should I do if I feel that a school is discriminating against me for having a disability?

Your 504 Coordinator (as well as ADA Coordinator or Disability Services Coordinator) is there to assist you when you feel that your school is discriminating against you. Each school will have informal and formal processes for dealing with discrimination complaints. The U.S. Department of Education explains the process for filing a formal complaint on their website (http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/transition.html). In formal cases, the college will have what they call a grievance procedure so you can voice the perceived discrimination and receive the fair and prompt resolution of your concerns. If you choose not to use the grievance procedures, you can file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education or in a court of law.

 
REVIEW OF TOPICS
 
Key Vocabulary:
  • Accommodations: An adjustment that does not change the standards of learning but allows a student to complete the same assignment or test as other students with a variation in time, format, setting, and/or presentation.
  • Grievance Procedures: Process for students to raise concerns surrounding discrimination at the postsecondary level, which results in the prompt and equitable resolution of concerns.
  • Modifications: An adjustment to an assignment or testing situation that does change the standard for a particular student.
  • Reasonable accommodation: Taking reasonable steps to accommodate a disability unless it would cause the school undue hardship.
  • Self-advocate: Representing oneself or one’s views or interests.
  • 504 Coordinator: Staff responsible for making sure a school is in compliance with Section 504, including ensuring student rights and training faculty on related legal obligations.
 
Section 504 in Review
 
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil rights law that prevents discrimination on the basis of having a disability. Any organization that receives federal funding must be in compliance with Section 504. The majority of schools at all levels, from elementary school to college, receive some amount of federal funding. This means that most schools must follow the provisions of Section 504 and ensure the same educational opportunities for students with disabilities as those without disabilities.

Up to the high school level, Section 504 has many similarities to IDEA. Some of the similarities include:

  • Protecting the rights of students with disabilities
  • Providing free appropriate public education
  • Providing academic accommodations based on individual needs
  • Listing needed accommodations in a written plan (IEP or Section 504 plan)

Despite both Section 504 and IDEA providing free appropriate public education and written plans, there are still differences in these areas. In IDEA, the term “appropriate” education means that a student should receive specialized instruction and services that provide educational benefit. In Section 504, the term “appropriate” education means a student should receive an education comparable to those given to students without disabilities (Council for Exceptional Children, 2002). These differences in appropriate education are reflected in the legislations’ respective written plans. IEPs reflect the special education instruction and related services that a student with a disability will receive in order to have an educational benefit. IEPs include plans for specialized instruction, related goals, and accommodations. They are several pages in length and more comprehensive than Section 504 plans. Section 504 plans are typically around one page in length and include the accommodations and related services that a student will receive in order to have the same educational opportunities as children without disabilities. They do not include goals and outcome measures that are in IEPs. This is because Section 504 plans revolve around student placement in general education classrooms, though students may receive specialized instruction and accommodations within the general education setting (Council for Exceptional Children, 2002).

Section 504 and IDEA have different eligibility requirements to determine that a student has a disability. Section 504 has a much broader version and does not contain the same specific disability categories that IDEA does. Section 504 is helpful to students who do not qualify for services under IDEA. Examples of individuals who most often fall in that category include students with learning disabilities, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), mobility impairments, contagious diseases (such as HIV), or parents with disabilities who attend a school function (such as with a mobility or hearing impairment).

If you currently qualify for services under IDEA, Section 504 may not seem important to you yet. However, it will quickly become important when you enter college and want academic accommodations. Section 504 and the ADA are the antidiscrimination laws that will protect you at the postsecondary level. Section 504, in particular, is the legislation that will help you to receive reasonable accommodations at the postsecondary level if your college determines that you meet the eligibility criteria for having a disability. Schools should have a Disability Support Coordinator, 504 Coordinator, or ADA Coordinator to ensure that your rights are protected as a student and that you receive the services that you need to be successful. 

Self-Advocacy is the Name of the Game

Even with the protection of Section 504 at the postsecondary level, you must remember this: you are responsible for yourself in college. College is a time to build independence and self-advocacy. You will not have the same degree of support that you did while in high school. You must seek out the help of the disability support services, provide documentation of your disability, and advocate for necessary academic accommodations. 

The first step to receiving disability support services in college is to disclose your disability to the Disability Support Coordinator, 504 Coordinator, or ADA Coordinator. Section 504 does not entitle you to services like IDEA did in high school. Colleges are not responsible for identifying your disability. Instead, you must make the choice to tell the school that you have a disability and need help. This should be done before a course begins. If you wait until the middle of a course when you are already having difficulties, it may be too late. You should take the initiative to immediately seek out help when you get on a college campus.

At the postsecondary level, you will have to prove that you have a disability that requires academic accommodations. Merely saying that you have a disability is not adequate; instead, you will have to show documentation as proof. Every school has its own requirements for documentation. A high school IEP or Section 504 plan may help to identify educational accommodations that may be beneficial to you, but they are generally not enough documentation to prove you have a disability that needs supported. The U.S. Department of Education provides examples of some documentation that may be necessary from a medical doctor, psychologist, or other qualified diagnostician. They include (U.S. Department of Education, 2007):

  • A diagnosis of your current disability
  • The date of the diagnosis
  • How the diagnosis was reached
  • The credentials of the professional
  • How your disability affects a major life activity (as in Section 504’s definition of disability)
  • How the disability affects your academic performance

In some cases, a postsecondary school may inform you that you need more documentation in order to prove that you have a disability. In that event, it is your responsibility to schedule and pay for a new evaluation. This is not the responsibility of your high school or college. In some cases, you may qualify for services through your state vocational rehabilitation agency, which could conduct and pay for the evaluation for you. To find a state vocational rehabilitation agency near you, visit the following website: http://askjan.org/cgi-win/TypeQuery.exe?902 (also included in the subsequent list of online materials and resources).

To reiterate, the entire process of disclosing a disability and seeking out needed academic accommodations is up to you. You are responsible for your own postsecondary success. You will not have the same team of supports that you did in high school, but Section 504 ensures that there is a person on staff responsible for helping you (Disability Support Coordinator, 504 Coordinator, or ADA Coordinator). College is an exciting time to build independence. Being prepared for those changes before entering college will increase your ability to self-advocate for yourself.

Accommodations, Accommodations, Accommodations

After your college has determined that you meet the criteria for having a disability under Section 504, you are eligible to receive academic accommodations. Section 504 mandates the provision of reasonable accommodations, which means that a school does not have to experience undue hardship to accommodate you. The accommodations that you receive in college under Section 504 may be different than those you received in high school under IDEA. Remember, postsecondary schools will not change or modify the standards of learning for you. You are expected to demonstrate the same standards of learning as your peers without disabilities in college. In addition, accommodations at the postsecondary level will not be personal in nature. This means that your college is not responsible for providing you with a tutor, personal attendant, or personal computer software or hardware. To see examples of possible accommodations at the postsecondary level, visit the following website: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/auxaids.html (also included in the subsequent list of online materials and resources). Your Disability Support Coordinator or 504 Coordinator will work with you to make sure you receive beneficial accommodations. Your accommodations should be documented in a plan, but this is typically less formal in nature than IEPs and Section 504 plans in high school.

In the event that you feel that your accommodations are not helping you, it is your responsibility to voice this concern. This should be done immediately rather than waiting until the end of a course. You should talk to your Disability Support Coordinator or 504 Coordinator to make changes to your accommodations.

 
YOU Have a Voice!
 
If you ever feel that you are being discriminated against, Section 504 has a process for you to voice your concerns. One responsibility of the Disability Support Coordinator or 504 Coordinator is to help you if you feel that you have experienced discrimination. There are informal and formal processes, including grievance procedures. Section 504 is in place to make sure that you do not experience discrimination, and it is there to give you a voice in the event that you are being discriminated against.

One important distinction between high school and college is the absence of traditional special education services at the postsecondary level. This means that it is important to remember that there is no distinction between regular and special education classes in college. Your college professors may not be trained to accommodate diverse learners to the same degree that your special education teachers were in high school. If you ever feel that your college professor is treating you unfairly because you have a disability, talk to your Disability Support Coordinator or 504 Coordinator immediately.

 
WEBSITES:
 
Association on Higher Education and Disability
Students’ FAQ
 
Going to College
A Resource for Teens with Disabilities
 
Job Accommodation Network
Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies
 
LD Online
Section 504, the ADA, and Public Schools
 
Understanding the Differences between IDEA and Section 504
 
National Center for Learning Disabilities
Section 504 in 2009: Broader Eligibility, More Accommodations
 
NICHCY: National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities
Disability and Education Laws
 
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
 
PACER Center
Section 504 & Postsecondary Education
 
U.S. Department of Education: Office for Civil Rights
Auxiliary Aids and Services for Postsecondary Students with Disabilities
 
Frequently Asked Questions about Section 504 and the Education of Children with Disabilities
 
Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities
 
Transition of Students with Disabilities to Postsecondary Education: A Guide for High School Educators
 
 
RESOURCES:
 
The Institute for Higher Education Policy
Higher Education Opportunities for Students with Disabilities: A Primer for Policymakers
 
National Secondary Transition Technical Assistance Center
High School and College for Students with Disabilities: Key Differences
 
The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth
The 411 on Disability Disclosure: A Workbook for Youth with Disabilities
 
PEPNet
Nondiscrimination in Higher Education: What’s the Law?
 
ASSESSMENT/EVALUATION:
  1. Describe the differences between IDEA and Section 504. Had you heard of Section 504 before? What did you know about it before this module? Why do you think more students know about IDEA than Section 504? Recognize that IDEA does not cover students at the postsecondary level. 
  1. Describe your disability and how it impacts your learning. Get comfortable talking about yourself and your academic needs. You do not have to use your disability “label” if that makes you uncomfortable, but you should be able to talk about your strengths as well as what you need help doing.
  1. Describe the academic accommodations that you receive in high school and how they help you in school. Continued practice will make this easier for you. If it helps, write down what you would like to say and practice saying it out loud. You will be better able to advocate for your needs if you understand what and how accommodations help you, along with being able to explain this to others.
  1. Call the disability support services at the colleges you are interested in attending. You may ask some of the following questions:
  • Do you have a Disability Support Coordinator, 504 Coordinator, or ADA Coordinator?
  • What services do you typically provide to students with disabilities?
  • What documentation do you expect in order to determine disability eligibility?
  • If I decide to go to your school, how can I set up an appointment with you to determine disability eligibility and start services?
  1. Start a portfolio of the documentation you may need in order to get disability support services in college. If you will need additional evaluations to determine eligibility, start scheduling these services prior to exiting high school. You may decide to locate a state vocational rehabilitation services agency to determine if they can serve and evaluate you. 
 
WRAP-UP:
 
The more you know about disability law, the better your rights are protected as a student. Up to this point, you probably have heard more about IDEA and ADA than Section 504. This does not make Section 504 any less important. Section 504 is an antidiscrimination law that will protect your rights as a student throughout college, which differs from IDEA where coverage ends with the graduation from high school.

The college experience has many differences from high school. The protective legislation changes, as well as the level of support you receive. Section 504 will ensure that you receive the same educational opportunities as your peers without disabilities, but it is your responsibility to initiate those services. You will have to choose to disclose your disability, provide documentation as proof of having a disability, and advocate for the academic accommodations that will benefit you. Section 504 will provide you the platform to advocate for yourself and ensure that your postsecondary experience is equitable.

 
REFERENCES:
 
Council for Exceptional Children. (2002). Understanding the differences between IDEA

and Section 504. Retrieved from http:www.ldonline.org/article/6086

National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. (2010). Section 504 of the

Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Retrieved from http://nichcy.org/laws/section504

U.S. Department of Education. (2007). Students with disabilities preparing for

postsecondary education: Know your rights and responsibilities. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/transition.html

Workforce Investment Act of 1998, Pub. L. No. 105-220, 112 Stat. 936 (1998).

 

This document was prepared by Leah Zimmerman for the HEATH Resource Center (HEATH). HEATH is an online clearinghouse on postsecondary education for individuals with disabilities, and is affiliated with The George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development (“GW”). This document was developed under the supervision of Dr. Lynda West as a requirement for graduate school course SPED 8345, Consultation Skills. Ms. Zimmerman prepared this document as a doctoral student at GW, and the opinions expressed in the document are those of the author. The opinions do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, and no official endorsement by the Department should be inferred.  Further, no official endorsement of any product, commodity, service or enterprise mentioned in this document is intended or should be inferred. Permission to use, copy, and distribute this document for non-commercial use and without fee, is hereby granted if appropriate credit to the HEATH Resource Center is included in all copies.