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Special Education

Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act

Three important federal laws protect students with disabilities:

  • IDEA (special education);
  • Sec. 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973;
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (the precursor of ADA) protects the rights of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities, including schools, that receive federal funds. Section 504 provides that: "No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . ." The meaning of this protection as regards students with disabilities is summarized in the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights's publication: "Free Appropriate Public Education for Students with Disabilities: Requirements Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973". Another useful Office for Civil Rights publication is "Protecting Students With Disabilities: Frequently Asked Questions About Section 504 and the Education of Children with Disabilities." The Office for Civil Rights offers many other publications in several languages, which are generally easy to read and understand.

Section 504 and IDEA: Basic Similarities and Differences
by S. James Rosenfeld, Esq. President EDLAW, Inc.

The specific federal regulations for Sec. 504 that apply to pre-school, elementary and secondary schools are found in Title 34 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Part 104. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires the same (though it has no specific regulations for this population), so when one complies with 504 as regards services for a covered student (of any age) one can usually feel confident that one is also complying with the ADA.

The Americans with Disabilities Act: ADA gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities that are like those provided to individuals on the basis of race, sex, national origin, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in employment, public accommodations (including most private schools, child care centers, etc), transportation, State and local government services (including public schools), and telecommunications.

"Student Placement in Elementary and Secondary Schools and Section 504 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act"

Other Resources

The Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education may be contacted regarding the Sec. 504 rights of covered students ages 3–22, through its complaint management programs administered by the Program Quality Assurance (PQA) Unit, and the dispute resolution programs.

The federal government has general responsibility for overseeing compliance (technical assistance and enforcement) of Sec. 504 and the ADA. For matters involving the enforcement of civil rights in education environments (for persons of any age, including colleges/universities and adult education), contact OCR's New England office:

U.S. Department of Education
8th Floor
5 Post Office Square
Boston, MA 02109-3921
Telephone: (617) 289-0111
TTY#: (800) 877-8339
Facsimile: (617) 289-0150

A final note: Both Sec. 504 and the ADA are major civil rights laws that protect not only eligible students, but also — unlike IDEA — they extend basic access and participation rights to all other persons with disabilities who are involved in the world of public education. These include: parents, teachers and all other staff, volunteers, school committee members and other local officials, members of the public, etc.

Last Updated: July 11, 2014

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Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
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