Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.
Section 504 and Who It Affects
Did you ever have a friend at school who had to use crutches or a wheelchair? Maybe you shared your lunch table with a fellow student who had Down Syndrome or needed insulin injections. If so, your friend or fellow student most benefited from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is the first law that was passed in the United States to protect people with disabilities from discrimination. The important part says:
'No qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service.'
The post office isn't the only agency the legislation singles out; it also specifically targets schools. Section 504 says that schools can't discriminate against disabled persons based on their disability in employment or in education. In sum, Section 504 says schools need to give students with disabilities the same education as mainstream students. Additionally, schools can't refuse to hire or fail to promote someone with a disability who is otherwise qualified.
So, who is disabled under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act? A qualified individual with a disability is one who has a history of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Major life activities include walking, seeing, hearing and speaking; you get the idea. To be a qualified individual with a disability for the purpose of getting a job, you must be able to perform the essential functions of a job with reasonable accommodation.
In an employment setting, Section 504 says that a qualified employee is one who can do the job with a reasonable accommodation. A reasonable accommodation means anything an employer can do to help you do the job, without causing undue hardship to the company. For example, an employer might provide a sign language interpreter for someone who is deaf. If an accommodation gets too expensive or disruptive, it may no longer be reasonable, and an employer might not have to provide it.
Section 504 also requires schools to make accommodations for qualified students with disabilities. Schools need to identify and evaluate students with disabilities to make sure their needs are met to the same extent as their peers. For instance, they may have to provide special education or supplementary services. As much as possible, schools are required to put a student with disabilities in the same class as students without disabilities.
Colleges and postsecondary education programs also have to make academic adjustments, if necessary, to make sure that students with disabilities enjoy the same opportunities for learning as mainstream students. This might include giving a student more time to complete his or her degree or offering an alternative oral exam for a student who can't write or type.
The Office of Civil Rights, Department of Education created regulations to carry out the aims of Section 504. The regulations ban discrimination in employment, accessibility, and education that:
- Prevent individuals with disabilities from getting benefits and services from federally funded programs
- Create or fail to remove physical barriers that prevent persons with disabilities from accessing programs, services, benefits, or opportunities
- Prevent someone who is otherwise qualified and entitled from being hired or promoted
Employers need to take active steps to recruit and promote persons with disabilities who are otherwise qualified for specific positions. None of the decisions an employer makes, like who gets hired, their salary, job assignments or award of tenure, can have a discriminatory effect.
Educational regulations require all public elementary and secondary schools that receive federal funds to provide free appropriate public education to all students, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability. Free appropriate public education means that a school must provide accommodations at no cost to a disabled child or his or her family so that the child gets the same education as all the other children.
The regulations also say that colleges may not refuse to admit students on the basis of disability. This includes placing limits on the number of students with disabilities a college will admit. Additionally, postsecondary education programs can't use an admissions test that disproportionately affects disabled applicants in a negative way. For example, a college can't require students to hand write an exam and then refuse to accept those who are blind because their handwriting was illegible.
What happens if a school does discriminate against a disabled person? Well, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights of the Department of Education will decide what kind of remedial action is necessary to overcome the effects of the discrimination. The school will have to undertake that remedial action even if the disabled person was, but is no longer, attending the school or participating in that after-school activity. The school will also have to remediate if the program discriminated against people that didn't participate in the activity but might have if the discriminatory practices had not occurred, such as a wheelchair-bound person who would have liked to join the basketball team.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires employers and schools to make sure that people with disabilities are included and get all the benefits of federally funded programs. Someone is considered a qualified individual with a disability, which is someone who has a history of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, if he or she is limited in a major life activity, which includes walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, etc.
If someone with a disability is qualified to do a job, you can't refuse to hire that person just because of his or her disability. This applies even if the job applicant needs a little accommodation from the employer as long as there is reasonable accommodation, which means anything an employer can do to help you do the job without causing undue hardship to the company. According to the Department of Education, schools need to proactively identify students who might have disabilities and come up with ways to accommodate their needs so they can get the same education as everyone else, which is known as free appropriate public education.
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