On July 26th, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA was an expansive civil rights law that, among other things, prohibited discrimination of those with disabilities.
In the education setting, we look at the ADA in conjunction with a previous law that dealt with students with disabilities: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Action of 1973. Together, the laws say that students with disabilities cannot be discriminated against because of their disability.
So, what does unlawful discrimination look like in schools?
Discrimination ranges from the obvious to the less obvious. Obvious: A basketball coach cannot exclude a student from basketball tryouts simply because the student has autism. Less Obvious: A school cannot exclude a student with autism from a field trip unless the student’s parent comes along. Even Less Obvious: A school cannot suspend a student with autism whenever their autism causes behavioral issues.
To better understand these examples, try to think about the law in terms of access. A student with a disability has to be able to access the same stuff their other classmates have access to.
Access to physical things is straight-forward. A student confined to a wheelchair needs the same physical access to the same facilities that everyone has – meaning ramps, elevators, railings, etc. A student who is blind needs materials provided in braille. A student with autism needs the same access to basketball tryouts and fieldtrips as their other classmates.
Access to non-physical things, however, is a bit more complicated. Take our student with autism who has behavioral issues as an example. Let’s say they are a great student, and 95% of the time they are well behaved. However, 5% of the time, their autism makes them disruptive. When they are disruptive, the school calls the parent and tells them to come pick up their student from school. If the parent is able, the student goes home and misses the rest of the school day. If the parent is unable, the school suspends the student and/or places them in an In-School Suspension (ISS) room for the rest of the school day.
In this example, the child’s disability makes them unable to access the normal school day and all of the instruction, worksheets, quizzes, tests, etc. that are included. More importantly, thanks to the school’s reaction in this example, the child is unable to access the rest of the school day, and whatever school days for which they are also suspended.
So, what can be done?
You can set up a 504 Plan at your school. (It’s named after the relevant section of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.) In a 504 Plan, you can get the school to address your child’s disability so they can have equal access. In the example of our student with autism, the school should develop a behavioral plan to manage and deescalate the student so that they can return to class as quickly and safely as possible. That way, they aren’t missing much instructional time, or missing an important quiz or test.
In additional to behavioral plans, here is a short, non-exhaustive list of other examples of accommodations your student can receive from a 504 Plan:
- Preferential seating (for students with attention, behavioral, hearing or sight issues)
- Large print assignments (for students with sight issues)
- Special desks (for students with specific physical conditions)
- Tablet computer and headphones (for students with attention, behavioral, hearing, sensory, or sight issues)
- “Chunking” of assignments, meaning putting 4 math problems on 1 page, instead of 25 problems on 1 page (for students with attention issues)
- Frequent breaks (for students with attention and/or behavioral issues)
- Allowing a student to change classes a couple of minutes before everyone else to help with sensory issues, or to minimize distractions
- Visual schedule to help a student with Autism make transitions easier
If your student has a diagnosed disability which impairs their access in some way at school, write the school a letter asking for a 504 plan meeting. If the school is resistant, you should contact an attorney. Or, you can file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights.
Finally, don’t ever forget about the possibility of your child qualifying for an IEP. For more on that, see our previous post here https://sclegal.org/quick-tips-for-parents/.