Special Education

Changes to Disabilities Act Seen as Offering Students Protections

By Christina A. Samuels — September 19, 2008 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A bill expanding the Americans with Disabilities Act that is headed to the White House could have implications for some students with disabilities.

Congressional lawmakers said the bill was necessary because of court decisions that had narrowed the protections for people with disabilities under the 18-year-old law. If signed into law by President Bush, the measure would also mean changes for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which predates the better-known Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The IDEA, first passed in 1975, requires schools to give students with disabilities individualized education programs designed to meet their education needs.

Section 504 prohibits discrimination by organizations, such as schools, that receive federal funding.

There is a small group of students who might be covered by Section 504 protections, but not by the IDEA. Examples of pupils who might need a “504 plan” are students with diabetes who need accommodations to maintain proper blood-sugar levels, or students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who may need more time to complete tests.

Source of Confusion

But Section 504 has been a source of confusion for some school administrators. (See “Study Finds ‘Section 504’ Rules Source of Confusion for Schools,” March 19, 2008.)

Just the fact that a child has a disability is not enough for eligibility under current legal requirements. If a student can be brought up to the standards of an average peer through the use of “mitigating measures,” such as medication, that child is not eligible for Section 504 services. The concept of mitigating measures came from a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act, however, would do away with mitigating measures as a way of denying someone protection under the ADA and Section 504.

The bill also requires that courts interpret the bill broadly, which means giving people with disabilities the benefit of the doubt that they are eligible for protection.

The bill was approved by voice vote in the House on Sept. 17. The House had passed its own version of the bill in June by a vote of 402-17, but ended up voting to suspend the rules and adopt the Senate version.

“This bill better defines who Congress intends to meet the definition of disabled,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a sponsor of the bill, said during a press conference Sept. 17. “It clarifies that mitigating measures, such as medication, may not be taken into account. It provides guidance as to what is a major life activity. And, most critically, it lowers the threshold for how limiting a condition must be, and insists that courts interpret the ada broadly.”

The White House has released a statement saying President George Bush “looks forward to signing the [bill] into law.”

Under the new changes, more children potentially could be eligible for Section 504 protections in school. How many more, though, is unclear.

Big Changes Unlikely

Rachel A. Holler, the principal of Stewart Middle School in Norristown, Pa., conducted research into Section 504 as her doctoral thesis at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. From her research, she determined that many schools may have been giving Section 504-related accommodations to students even though they were not legally obligated to do so.

For those schools, little may change, Ms. Holler said.

Jessica Butler, with the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, or COPAA, in Towson, Md., said a small number of schools were denying students Section 504 protections. One example she gave was of a school that said a child did not need accommodations for diabetes because the disease was controlled by insulin.

Another school, according to Ms. Butler, suggested that a child with a severe allergy to nuts did not need accommodations because the allergy appeared only when the child was exposed to nuts.

“Most schools do what they should do” and give students accommodations when necessary, said Ms. Butler, who is the co-chairwoman of the government-affairs committee of COPAA.

But there were some school districts that were beginning to use a stricter interpretation, she said.

“It’s in that context where these reforms could have a potential impact,” she said. “It says to everyone, ‘We’re not going to close doors to civil rights protections for adults, or children.’ ”

A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2008 edition of Education Week as Changes to Disabilities Act Seen As Offering Students Protections

Events

School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education Quiz Quiz Yourself: How Much Do You Know About Learning Differences?
Answer 10 questions to assess your knowledge on learning differences.
Special Education What the Research Says Co-Teaching: Valuable But Hard to Get Right
Teachers worry that cramped schedules, power struggles, and uncertainty can hinder learning for students with disabilities.
5 min read
special report v38 15 specialeducation 860
Fifth grade teacher Kara Houppert and special education teacher Laura Eisinger co-teach a class in Naples, N.Y., in 2018.
Mike Bradley for Education Week
Special Education Reports Teaching Students With Learning Differences: Results of a National Survey
This report examines survey findings about implementation of best practices for teaching students with learning differences.
Special Education New Discipline Guidance Focuses on Discrimination Against Students With Disabilities
The Biden administration aims to clarify how federal law protects students with disabilities.
6 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington on Aug. 5, 2021.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks at a White House briefing in August 2021. The U.S. Department of Education has just released guidance on protecting students with disabilities from discriminatory discipline practices.
Susan Walsh/AP