Disability Defined by Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act

Students with mental or physical impairments qualify

A student in a wheelchair does schoolwork.

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Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 defines what a disability is in the classroom and protects students with disabilities from discrimination.

The federal government enforces Section 504 in all programs or entities that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Education.

If your child has a disability, understanding the federal government's definition of disability will help you know about and exercise the rights afforded to students with disabilities under federal law.

Section 504 Definition of Disability

As defined by Section 504, a student is understood to have a disability if they have a mental or physical impairment (or a record of impairment).

The federal government considers a student to be disabled if they are substantially limited in their major life activities.

Examples include (but are not limited to) activities or abilities such as:

  • Self-care
  • Breathing
  • Walking
  • Seeing
  • Speaking
  • Completing school work and learning

Students with learning disabilities may not appear to be substantially limited in life. It may not be obvious that they have a specific disability or disorder. Still, these students may need special services in school.

Students Excluded by the Definition

A student is excluded from eligibility if their condition does not substantially limit a major life activity. The student must also demonstrate a need for special services in the classroom.

For example, a medical diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) alone would not be sufficient for a child to qualify under Section 504 if the child has no problems in school.

Many students with ADHD do not need special services or education classes. Instead, they learn coping mechanisms from a therapist or doctor that help them manage the disorder while they remain in mainstream classrooms.

However, students with severe ADHD (or less effective coping skills) may need special services in school. The need is usually determined through a formal ​assessment, review of educational records, formal observations, medical data, adaptive behavior measures, and parent and teacher reports.

A child with ADHD may qualify as disabled if they are unable to attend a class, cannot tolerate a classroom environment, or have other learning difficulties.

These examples are problems that are significant enough to have a substantial impact on a student's learning.

Section 504 versus IDEA

Defining disability under Section 504 is more broad than the definition of a Free Appropriate Public Education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

IDEA specifies disabilities, including:

  • Intellectual disability
  • Deafness
  • Speech or language impairments
  • Blindness
  • Autism
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Various learning disabilities

Next Steps

If you are unsure whether your child has a disability, don't rely on your interpretation of the law alone. Discuss your concerns with your child's educators, therapists, and doctors.

Find out which assessments or evaluations necessary to determine if your child is disabled. If your child does have a disability, early intervention is key to making sure that they get the support they need at school.

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Education. Protecting Students With Disabilities. Updated January 2020.

  2. U.S. Department of Education. Individuals with disabilities education act. Sec.300.8 Child with a disability. Updated May 2018.