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On March 22, 2017, in a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal laws regarding the education of students with disabilities require schools to provide these students with programs that allow for more than de minimis progress. This means that programs for students with disabilities will not automatically meet the federal requirement simply because the students show at least some improvement. Instead, schools need to operate within the parameters of federal laws to help students achieve meaningful progress.
The Supreme Court case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, discussed the de minimis requirement in terms of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and its requirement that schools provide children with “free appropriate public education.” This article will discuss schools’ obligations under this law, as well as other federal laws related to individuals with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is most commonly known for protecting individuals with disabilities from discrimination in the workplace; however, this law’s coverage extends to many different aspects of public life, including schools. In addition to the ADA, students with disabilities are also protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), regardless of the nature or severity of the disability, as well as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These federal laws apply in varying degrees to both private and public schools, and impose different requirements to ensure students have adequate protection.
The ADA was drafted broadly so that it could provide individuals with disabilities with as much protection as possible. The Act covers a vast majority of entities within the United States, and protects any individual with “a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more life activities,” such as seeing, hearing, speaking, concentrating, and learning. Additionally, the law applies to individuals who are perceived as having a disability, meaning that a person could be covered if others act as though he or she is impaired, regardless of whether the person actually has an impairment.
Under the ADA, a school must provide a reasonable accommodation to a student with a disability. Reasonable accommodations are determined on a case-by-case basis, and reflect a student’s unique needs. An accommodation may assist a student to complete certain tasks; however, it should not change the way the student’s performance is reviewed, or how the student is expected to behave. For example, giving a student extra time during exams may be considered a reasonable accommodation; on the other hand, using different scoring criteria for the student, as compared to students without a disability, may not.
The ADA protects students throughout their entire lives and in various situations. This means that students with disabilities are entitled to receive reasonable accommodations even outside of the classroom, in such extracurricular activities as sports teams or youth organizations. Additionally, post-secondary schools and employers cannot discriminate against the individual based on his or her disability, or the fact that he or she may have received an accommodation in primary or secondary school.
Section 504 applies to all programs and activities that receive federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education. Typically, public school districts, private schools, post-secondary schools, and other state and local educational institutions receive such financial assistance, and are required to comply with Section 504.
Under Section 504, school districts are required to provide Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to qualified students with disabilities within the district’s jurisdiction. As with the ADA, to fit within Section 504’s definition of “disability,” an individual must have a physical or mental impairment that “substantially” limits a life activity or the person must be regarded as having an impairment. Additionally, there must be a record of the impairment.
Some students with disabilities may qualify for a 504 Plan. These plans are available to students from Kindergarten to Grade 12. In order to obtain a 504 Plan, the school must conduct an evaluation to determine whether the student’s disability “substantially” impairs his or her ability to participate in a general classroom. Either a parent or the school may request an evaluation; however, the child’s parents must consent. If the parents refuse, the school may request a due process hearing to circumvent the parents’ wishes.
The specifics of 504 plans can vary across school districts; however, they typically contain information relating to the child’s unique accommodations or services, the name of the school personnel who will provide the accommodations or services, and the name of the individual responsible for the implementation of the Plan.
The IDEA, also referred to as the “special education” law, was enacted to protect the rights of children with disabilities and to give parents a voice in their child’s education in public school settings. Like Section 504, this law makes schools responsible for FAPE. Unlike the ADA and Section 504, the IDEA contains a specific age restriction, covering children with disabilities from infancy through their high school graduation, or until they reach 22, whichever event happens first.
Under the IDEA, a child must have one of the thirteen disabilities listed in the Act to be categorized as having a disability. Additionally, if the child wishes to receive special education services, then he or she must, as a result of his or her disability, need assistance in order to progress in school. Students with listed disabilities who are doing well in school, despite their disabilities, are ineligible to receive special education services under the IDEA; however, they could be covered under the ADA or Section 504.
If the school suspects that a child may have a disability, the school will need to conduct an evaluation to determine whether the child has a disability under the IDEA, and what support the student might need to improve in school. Once the evaluation is complete, and it has been determined that the student is covered under the IDEA, the school must work with the child’s parents to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
An IEP is required for every child who receives services under the IDEA, and is typically more detailed than a 504 Plan. IEPs contain a description of the child’s “present level of educational performance” (PLOP), which includes information relating to the child’s abilities, weaknesses, and strengths. Additionally, an IEP must state the child’s disabilities, the services and accommodations that the school will be providing, and the child’s educational goals. An IEP is a legally binding document; therefore, the school must provide all services stipulated in the IEP, including any modifications or accommodations allowed in the classroom and during testing.
Accommodations allow students with disabilities to participate in classroom activities and receive the same education as other students. Accommodations help students overcome their disabilities, without giving the students an unfair advantage, and place them on a similar playing field as their peers.
Schools can provide students with disabilities with a wide variety of reasonable accommodations to compensate for both physical and mental impairments. By sitting down with the child and his or her parents, schools can better understand the student’s needs. Although it may not always be obvious as to what kind of accommodation a student requires, the ADA, Section 504, and the IDEA have provided schools with various avenues to achieve a positive result.
Reasonable accommodations for students with physical disabilities can include elevators and access ramps, written or oral instructions, and the use of interpreters. Students with mental impairments may receive accommodations such as extra time during exams, specific seating locations in a classroom, and the use of a computer or word processor to take notes.
Regardless of the type of accommodation someone may require, it is important for schools to be prepared to adapt to the unique needs of their students. By understanding what is required under the law, schools can help ensure that students with disabilities are able to receive the assistance necessary to complete the same tasks as their peers and successfully earn their education.