Section 504 is the section of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which applies to persons with disabilities. It is a federal civil rights law that protects the civil and constitutional rights of persons with disabilities. Section 504 prohibits organizations that receive federal funds (public schools are covered under this) from discriminating against people solely because they have a disability. Section 504 is enforced by the US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

Section 504 regulation defines an "individual with handicaps" as any person who (a) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, (b) has a record of such an impairment, or (c) is regarded as having such an impairment. The regulation further defines a physical or mental impairment as (A) any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; genitourinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine; or (B) any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities. Please note that the definition does not set forth a list of specific diseases and conditions that constitute physical or mental impairments because of the difficulty of ensuring the comprehensiveness of any such list.

The key factor in determining whether a person is considered an "individual with handicaps" covered by Section 504 is whether the physical or mental impairment results in a substantial limitation of one or more major life activities. Major life activities, as defined in the regulation, include functions such as caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.

Section 504 differs from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Plan (IDEA) in that it is a civil rights law to prevent discrimination against any individual with a disability. Section 504 is enforced by the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. In contrast, IDEA is a statute enforced by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services and only applies to the special education of students with disabilities.

Therefore, in order for a student to be designated as being eligible for accommodations/ modifications under Section 504, a student must meet the following two criteria:

  • Have a documented disability
  • This disability must substantially limit a major life activity

Students determined eligible under Section 504 represent a broad range of academic abilities and may participate in courses spanning the full spectrum of the available academic offerings. While the intent of Section 504 is to “level the playing field” it does not guarantee that a student will achieve higher grades.