What can you do if your child does not qualify for special education, but you know he needs some extra help dealing with a disability? The answer is to request a "504-Plan hearing" at your child's school.
What is a 504-Plan? A 504-plan is a legal, binding document that began with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It is designed to help students with special physical, mental, and psychological needs to feel comfortable with the regular learning environment. According to this document: "No otherwise qualified individual with handicaps in the United States … shall, solely by reason of her or his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." All public schools fall under the category of receiving this assistance.
Who is eligible? Your child is eligible if she is considered disabled. This is a broad term that includes physical and mental problems not ordinarily associated with having a disability. Perhaps your child has a disfiguring scar on the right side of her face; a 504-Plan accommodation might request teachers to sit her on the right side of the room so her scar is less noticeable. Or maybe your son is severely overweight; a 504-Plan accommodation for him might include a separated desk and chair in each room so he doesn't have to fit into one of the attached models. Many other disabilities apply, because according to the 504-Plan, a person with a disability is someone who is unable to perform "major life activities" with the rest of the class. These activities include caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, breathing, seeing, speaking, hearing, walking, working and learning. Many hidden disabilities, such as seizures, diabetes, and high blood pressure are certainly covered.
What about my child who has AD/HD? In order for a school to consider accommodating your child with AD/HD, he must have been evaluated by a neurologist who certifies that your child actually does have this problem. Without the doctor's note, the school's hands are tied. AD/HD has become a controversial diagnosis. Some schools see it as a catchall for students who just don't want to cooperate. Other schools see it as a problem that is as real as blindness. Talk to your child's counselor if you are unsure about the school policy. However, the 504-Plan is a valuable resource because it will allow your child to bring home an extra set of books, will give him preferred seating to eliminate distractions, and will alert his teachers to remind him to constantly stay on the topic. However, although accommodations have been made for AD/HD students, success is not guaranteed because the child may not choose to cooperate with the program.
Does a 504-Pplan become part of my child's permanent record? No. In fact, some 504-Plans are temporary. If your daughter had a serious illness, such as mononucleosis, and was absent from school for six weeks, a 504-Plan would help her to get back on track again. If your child is a recovering alcoholic or addict, the 504-Plan would provide for temporary relief from stress-producing situations to help him regain confidence in his ability as a student. Remember, in both of these cases, a professional must certify that your child is temporarily disabled. Not all schools will provide a temporary 504-Plan because it is so legally binding. Check with your school for local policy.
How do I request a 504-Plan hearing for my child? The first step is to contact your school's counseling department and fill out the referral form. Then, a meeting is scheduled between you and your child's teachers, counselors, principal, support staff as needed (nurse, speech therapist, etc) and of course, your child. After discussion, a 504-Plan is developed that will list the special accommodations. When everyone agrees upon the terms, the document is signed and sent to all of your child's teachers, who are legally bound to provide the accommodations.
What kinds of accommodations are available? Depending on the type and severity of your child's disability, the school may consider any of the following options and can even make up new accommodations to fit the needs of the student. In addition to those already mentioned, the 504-Plan may recommend: • Extended time for testing • Extra time for moving between classes • Use of a journal for communication between student/counselor/parents • Special transportation to school and field trips • Use of available technology in a regular classroom • Allowance for health-related absences • Assignment sheets to be signed daily by teachers/students/parents
Does a 504-Plan cost anything? Not directly. Your taxes pay for the special transportation or other building changes such as ramps. Some federal grant money is also available for meeting the needs of 504-Plan students. As parents, you pay nothing to have your child's 504-Plan needs met.
How can I get more information? As part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, this section can be seen at this website: www.dese.state.mo.us/divspeced/staccess.html. Also, most schools have a copy of the 504-Plan regulations in their counseling office. If you want to see all of the regulations about special education, go to www.ericec.org or call The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Children at 1-800-328-0272 (TTY 1-703-264-9449). You can also email them questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
RENÉE HEISS is a high school teacher and the parent of a daughter who benefited from the accommodations of a 504-Plan after she was diagnosed with ADD. Her daughter is now a college junior majoring in education.