Children with disabilities in the United States have the right to a free appropriate public education, which is guaranteed under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This can cover children who have any number of conditions or issues. How do you know when your child needs one?
When my daughter was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), an autoimmune disease that causes pain, swelling, severe fatigue and mobility issues, I realized that the problems she was having and the numerous out-of-town appointments we had to attend were interfering with her days at school. Her teachers were already accommodating for her, but I wanted to get in writing exactly what they were doing so we could have the groundwork set for the next year. She'll be moving up to middle school, and I wanted the plan to be already in place.
Children with special needs can and should be accommodated in their school setting to ensure that they're getting the same educational opportunities as their peers. "Any student with a disability that substantially limits them in a major life activity is entitled to protections under Section 504," explains Richard J. Murphy, a Phoenix-based lawyer who specializes in providing assistance to children with special needs. "If your child has a medical or other condition that requires that the school deal with the student in a different way, you may want to request a 504 plan."
There is no list of all included diagnoses that may qualify one for a 504 plan — according to the U.S. Department of Education, it's nearly impossible to create a comprehensive list. As long as one or more major life activities (learning, working, caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking and breathing) is impacted by the disability, a child should qualify. Again, this list is not exhaustive, and other life activities can be impacted enough to qualify a child for a 504 plan.
If you're not sure, ask. Every school has a 504 coordinator who can help you set up a meeting to determine if your child needs accommodations. You'll need documentation from your child's physician (we got a note from our daughter's rheumatologist outlining her diagnosis, symptoms, side effects of medications and suggested modifications), and don't hesitate to see if your child's caregivers can attend, such as a psychologist if he's seeing one. Also, do an internet search beforehand to find out what other parents have had written into their child's 504 plan — it can help to come in prepared to know what to ask for.
The 504 plan is there to help your child meet her educational goals. Accommodations may be as simple as allowing your son or daughter more time to take tests, or to have access to water and restrooms at all times. Or they may be more complex, such as lending assistive technology or devices. Don't hesitate to push for what you think your child needs — as parents, we are our children's best advocates.
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