Special Education

What Do Schools Owe Students With Disabilities? Feds Plan to Update Regulations

By Evie Blad — May 06, 2022 2 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education plans to update regulations on schools’ obligations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a major federal law that prohibits discrimination against students with disabilities.

The announcement comes as schools’ ability to meet the needs of students with disabilities during remote learning—and to make up for any progress lost due to lapses in services—have been a major focus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Education Department announced its intent Friday to update the regulations, outlining the process for public comment 45 years after the regulations were first published.

“While the world has undergone enormous changes since 1977, the Department’s Section 504 regulations have remained, with few exceptions, unaltered,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon said in a statement.

The agency did not specify what changes it would consider, but said in an announcement that it wanted to “strengthen and protect the rights” of students, incorporating the voices of people with disabilities in the process.

What this civil rights law requires

Section 504 is a civil rights law that requires schools to provide a free appropriate public education—or FAPE—to students with a broad range of physical, emotional, developmental, and intellectual disabilities, addressing their needs through individual plans that outline accommodations. Such accommodations could include additional time for tests, a change in classroom seating, modified homework assignments, or the use of special technologies to help students with processing issues.

Section 504 differs from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, under which schools create individualized education programs that outline services for students with a more narrow list of disabilities that includes dyslexia, autism, and deafness or blindness. In many cases, students with disabilities are protected by both laws.

Advocates for students with disabilities and their families have said the process of securing accommodations at school can be difficult and confusing.

They’ve also complained that schools haven’t moved quickly enough to address the need for compensatory services—services that address lost progress during lapses in accommodations—as they enter pandemic recovery.

Plans to update the Section 504 regulations came a week after the Education Department announced a resolution with Los Angeles schools after if found fault with that district’s special education offerings during the pandemic and its plans to assess the need for compensatory services as part of its recovery. That agreement heartened advocates who’ve pushed for change.

Instructions for submitting comments on changes that could be made to Section 504 regulations are here.

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