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Source: Section 504: The Rehabilitation Act of 1973—InfoGuides at Central Piedmont Community College

Source: Section 504: The Rehabilitation Act of 1973—InfoGuides at Central Piedmont Community College

July 26, 2023

The 50th Anniversary of Section 504: The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

On its 50th anniversary, celebrate by learning about the significance of the Section 504 Plan of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.


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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Section 504 Plan of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This legislation is incredibly significant because it is the first federal disability civil rights law to be enacted in the United States. This legislation called for the integration of individuals with disabilities into institutions receiving federal financial assistance, including schools and postsecondary institutions, and above all prohibits discrimination based upon an individual’s disability. Previously, students with disabilities were often excluded or segregated from their general education peers in the nation’s public school system. Today, safeguards are in place for students and their caregivers in matters of disability discrimination.

History: Section 504

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 | Center for Parent Information and Resources was modeled after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin Legal Highlight: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 | U.S. Department of Labor. Following the passage of the 504 legislation, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (known today as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA) was enacted in 1975 About IDEA—Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) followed in 1990 and prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities with regard to employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and access to state and local government programs and services Americans with Disabilities Act | U.S. Department of Labor.

Although Section 504 was signed into law in 1973, the nondiscrimination regulations were not implemented. Consequently, in April 1977, disability rights’ protests were planned across major U.S. cities to push for enforcement of the regulations. Individuals with disabilities and caregivers staged a historic sit-in in what is known as the longest nonviolent occupation of a federal building in U.S. history lasting nearly one month Sitting-in for disability rights: The Section 504 protests of the 1970s | National Museum of American History. As a result, the regulations were signed and marked the first time that treatment of individuals with disabilities was viewed through the lens of civil rights instead of a medical or vocational perspective U.S. Department of Education Announces Intent to Strengthen and Protect Rights for Students with Disabilities by Amending Regulations Implementing Section 504.


All public schools and school districts, as well as all public charter schools and magnet schools, that receive federal financial assistance must comply with Section 504 Parent and Educator Resource Guide to Section 504 in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.

In addition to protecting against discrimination, Section 504 requires that school districts provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to qualified students in their jurisdictions who have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities Protecting Students With Disabilities. FAPE under Section 504 refers to the provision of general or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet individual educational needs of students with disabilities as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met.

Examples of Qualifying Impairments:

A student who has dyslexia and is substantially limited in reading finds it challenging to read the required class material in a timely manner. Alternatively, a student who has been diagnosed with depression may be substantially limited in their ability to concentrate while completing school assignments. In both cases, the student spends far more time preparing for class than other students and earns good grades because of the student’s intelligence and extreme efforts. The student would still be substantially limited in the major life activity of reading despite earning good grades and may require a multisensory approach to learning, and additional time to complete in-class tests or quizzes, even if that student earns mostly A’s Parent and Educator Resource Guide to Section 504 in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.

Examples of Nondiscrimination:


  • Participation in all activities that are available for students without disabilities;
  • Participation in the same academic curriculum as nondisabled students;
  • Participation in nonacademic and extracurricular activities;
  • Equal access to recreational activities;
  • Equal opportunities to participate in athletics;
  • Participation in clubs;
  • Access to specific courses (seminar and Advanced Placement, for example); and
  • Opportunity to participate in field trips.

Postsecondary Institutions

Colleges and universities receiving federal financial assistance must not discriminate in the recruitment, admission or treatment of students. Students with documented disabilities may request modifications, accommodations or auxiliary aids that will enable them to participate in and benefit from all postsecondary educational programs and activities. Postsecondary institutions must make such changes to ensure that the academic program is accessible to the greatest extent possible by all students with disabilities Section 504: The Law & Its Impact on Postsecondary Education | LD OnLine.

Universities and colleges may not:

  • Limit the number of students with disabilities admitted;
  • Make pre-admission inquiries as to whether an applicant is disabled;
  • Use admissions tests or criteria that inadequately measure the academic qualifications of disabled students because special provisions were not made for them;
  • Exclude a qualified student with a disability from any course of study;
  • Limit eligibility to a student with a disability for financial assistance or otherwise discriminate in administering scholarships, fellowships, internships or assistantships on the basis of disability;
  • Counsel a student with a disability toward a more restrictive career;
  • Measure student achievement using modes that adversely discriminate against a student with a disability; or
  • Establish rules and policies that may adversely affect students with disabilities 
    Section 504: The Law & Its Impact on Postsecondary Education | LD OnLine

The disability rights movement of the 1970s brought significant concerns to light and increased public awareness. Further, actions by protesters generated the implementation of nondiscrimination regulations into law. The Section 504 Plan of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 stands as the foundation in disability law and a model of civil rights protections in addition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Let’s continue the work to ensure these protections remain and national civil rights are upheld.

New Guidance for Supporting Students with Disabilities

On July 19, 2022, the Department of Education issued updated guidance on the discipline of students with disabilities.  Specifically, the update provides schools with a clear and comprehensive approach to avoid discriminatory practices and make use of American Rescue Plan funds to ensure students with disabilities receive social-emotional and/or behavioral supports and services as documented in their respective IEPs and Section 504 Plans.

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Heidi Goger

A passionate advocate on behalf of diverse learners. Experience in the field of special education as a teacher and administrator. Philosophy: Practitioner of equity and social justice.

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