For the first time in 45 years, the US Department of Education is planning to update federal mandates for how schools and colleges must accommodate students with disabilities. The department is soliciting public comments about how current regulations can be improved under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
“The passage of Section 504 was a landmark and hard-fought moment in the disability rights movement. It was a tremendous step toward ending disability-based discrimination and promoting full rights of people with disabilities in education and employment settings,” says Christine Ashby, Director of the Center on Disability and Inclusion and Professor of Inclusive Special Education and Disability Studies at Syracuse University School of Education. “But 45 years later, the promise of the law has not been fully realized. Far too many students lack access to appropriate supports and services and many face diminished opportunities and segregation from non-disabled peers.”
Ashby continues, “While the regulations in both §504 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) communicate support for the idea of education in the least restrictive environment, many students continue to receive their education in highly restrictive settings. I hope that any update to §504 would strengthen support for inclusive education and make it easier for parents and guardians to exercise their due process rights.”
Says Beth Ferri, Professor of Inclusive Education and Disability Studies, “Section 504 of the Rehab Act was certainly a landmark piece of legislation that we generally think of as passing in 1973. But it wasn’t until the protests that took place in April 1977—which culminated in an almost 30-day sit-in of a federal building in San Francisco led by activists such as Judith Heumann and so many others—that regulations were created that resulted in being able to enforce the law. Before those regulations, we didn’t really have any of the assurances that §504 promised.
“I would love to see stronger language in both §504 and IDEA around inclusion”—Professor Beth Ferri
“Whether you are in a K-12 setting or university setting, §504, along with the IDEA, remains a bulwark of non-discrimination legislations that students rely upon in education contexts. §504 allows students to have necessary accommodation and modifications enabling them to participate equally and without discrimination. It also laid the groundwork for the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Despite the importance of this legislation, it is also true that many students remain under-served by §504 and IDEA. First, §504 didn’t provide the necessary guidance for ensuring students with disabilities received an equitable education while schools were dealing with all of the upheaval and challenges associated with COVID.
“Second, the assurances provided by §504 (and IDEA) have always benefitted white middle class families more so than families of color or those with less financial means, leading to uneven benefits associated with §504. This means that a poor student of color, for instance, might go without a necessary accommodation or educational service, while a more affluent family can leverage cultural and financial capital in ways that take unfair advantage of these provisions in ways that exacerbate other kinds of educational inequities.
“Third, students with mental health issues often fall between the cracks in our schools—not qualifying for some services and often receiving less-than-adequate or appropriate supports. As more students suffer the fallout of COVID isolation and other forms of emotional distress, we need §504 to be a tool to ensure students get the kinds of supports they need.
“Finally, I would love to see stronger language in both §504 and IDEA around inclusion, such that students are not given a false choice between getting the services they need but in a segregated (or restrictive) setting, or being included with their peers but having to forgo necessary services. We continue to conflate the level of service a child or student needs with the restrictiveness of their placement.”