Historically, children with disabilities have had few rights in the arena of public education. Children with disabilities who were deemed appropriate for school were simply grouped together in segregated classrooms regardless of age or level of need. Children deemed too low functioning or too disruptive to benefit from school were often expelled.
With the onset of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, a series of legislative acts were implemented in order to ensure that children with disabilities had the right to receive a free, appropriate, public education. One of these acts was The Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 incorporates a brief section commonly referred to as Section 504. Section 504 is a civil rights law guaranteeing certain rights to individuals with disabilities. This law includes some students that may not be covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services (2008), while IDEA protects students who fall into one or more of thirteen specific disability categories, Section 504 implements a functional approach, including students who have a disability, either physical or mental, that impedes a major life activity, students who have a record of having such a disability, and students who are simply regarded as having such a disability. These criteria greatly broaden the scope of children protected under this law.
Section 504 outlines several steps that districts must take to in order to appropriately meet the needs of students with disabilities. First, school districts must create a system through which children with disabilities can be identified. School personnel must have a clear understanding of what should trigger a referral for special education services, as well as the process to follow when making a referral.
Once a student has been referred, evaluation is the second step in the process. After parental consent has been obtained, a multidisciplinary team meets to review all relevant materials, and a decision is made regarding eligibility for services.
The third step in the process involves the design of appropriate educational programming. The school must identify and provide for the complete range of academic services needed by the student.
After the multidisciplinary team has identified the services needed by the student, it must make a determination regarding appropriate placement. According to IDEA, children must receive services in the least restrictive environment conducive to learning. Taking this into consideration, the team must decide which level of services may best meet the needs of the student.
Finally, the team must set a date for reevaluation of the plan. The purpose of this is to ensure that the student is demonstrating adequate progress, and that the level of placement and the determined interventions are appropriate. This must occur before any significant changes in placement are made. If no significant changes are anticipated, the team may simply set an arbitrary date for review.