Helping Students With Disabilities: Education and Legal Experts Weigh In on Plan to Update Federal Regulations

For the first time in 45 years, the US Education Department 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.

Beth Ferri is a professor of Inclusive Education and Disability Studies at Syracuse University and coordinates the Doctoral program in Special Education.

Prof. Ferri says:

Beth Ferri

“Section 504 of the Rehab Act was certainly a landmark piece of legislation that we generally think of as passing in 1973. But it was not until the protests that took place in April of 1977, which culminated in an almost 30-day sit in of a federal building in San Francisco led by activists like Judith Heumann and so many others that led to regulations that resulted in being able to enforce the law. Before those regulations, we did not really have any of the assurances that 504 promised.

Whether you are in a K-12 setting or university setting, 504, along with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 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 Section 504 and IDEA. First, 504 did not 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 1) getting the services they need but in a segregated (or restrictive) setting or 2) 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. ”

Arlene Kanter is a disability law expert and the founder of the Syracuse University College of Law Disability Law and Policy Program.

Prof. Kanter says:

Arlene Kanter

“The promise of section 504 remains unfulfilled. Barriers still exist within the law and its regulations that make it difficult, if not impossible, for some qualified students with disabilities to access the accommodations and services they need.

Further the way in which section 504 and its regulations are currently written, and applied, they limit the types of damages that may be awarded to students and their families who prevail in section 504 cases.

Third, section 504 allows school districts, universities, and colleges to be relieved of any responsibility to remedy discrimination against students with disabilities if they can show that to do so would be an undue burden. Unfortunately, courts have found undue burdens leaving the students, themselves, with no remedy whatsoever. What that means in practice is that these students are effectively denied an education.

These are just some of the issues that I believe should be addressed in the current effort to amend section 504 regulations and to strengthen those regulations to provide greater protections for students with disabilities particularly in higher education. ”

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