Several people in our CHD support group have recently had questions about getting special services for the kids who are starting school this year. Specifically, we have been discussing the differences between Special Education services through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), and which would be appropriate for their CHD child. As a school principal, I deal with both Section 504 and IDEA students on a daily basis. I hope that the following blog will help you make the right decisions to provide assistance and protection to your CHD child as they start the new school year.
Basically, the two laws are similar in that they both provide educational benefits to kids with disabilities, but they differ in their eligibility requirements and the types of benefits that are provided. The requirements for eligibility under IDEA are stricter than those under Section 504, but IDEA provides more benefits than does Section 504. Essentially, all students under IDEA are also protected under Section 504, but not all students under Section 504 are protected by IDEA. It is easier to place a student under Section 504 because it has less procedural criteria, but these students are generally provided less assistance and monitoring by the school. IDEA status is more difficult to get because there are more specific criteria and it has much stricter regulation, but it does provide more types and degrees of assistance and special services to the student.
Section 504 protects people for their lifespan in many areas, including school, employment, and transportation, while IDEA only addresses the special education of students from ages 3 to 21.
Students are eligible for IDEA if they have a specific impairment or condition that adversely affects their educational performance. These impairments or conditions can include, but are not limited to: autism, learning disabilities, speech/hearing impairments, emotional disturbance, or other health impairments, but the condition MUST adversely affect their education. Students are eligible for Section 504 if they have a condition that substantially limits a major life activity, even if the condition does not affect their education. Major life activities include: walking, seeing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. But Section 504 conditions do NOT have to have an educational affect.
IDEA requires that students be placed in the most appropriate learning environment for them individually. This can include regular or special education classes. It also requires that each student has an individualized education program (IEP), which provides specific modifications and accommodations to help the student succeed academically. Section 504 generally places students in a setting that is comparable to that of students who are not disabled. It also provides some accommodations, but these are usually used in the regular educational setting.
So, which type of services is right for your child? This depends on the level that your child’s CHD has affected them and their development. If your child’s CHD caused them to have any type of developmental or learning disability, then IDEA is probably the right program. If your child’s CHD slows them down physically, but has not affected their learning or development, then Section 504 is probably best. There are obviously exceptions to these, so be sure to consult your child’s school if you aren’t sure which is right for you.
You might be wondering why you need any type of service at all if your child doesn’t have any learning or developmental issues. As a principal and a CHD parent, I highly recommend that you pursue some sort of protection for your child at school. While your child may not need accommodations or special services in order to succeed academically, they may need some of the other protections that are provided under Section 504.
One of these protections involves attendance. Many states require that students attend 90% of the available school days and, even if an absence is for approved medical reasons, a student can be retained for excessive absences. If a student has protection under Section 504, special accommodations can be made in the event of an extended illness or hospitalization. Also, your child may not experience severe educational deficits early in their school years, but if they do later in life, having a 504 plan can make it easier to get accommodations or even move to IDEA protection. Section 504 also makes it easier to get certain exemptions from activities, like running, lifting weights, etc.
In addition to all of this, the Section 504 plan follows your child through school as a record and every new teacher is required to review it during the school year. This means that each new teacher will be notified of your child’s condition and know what your child needs.
I hope that this information helps you in making the right educational decisions for your CHD child. If you still have questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I also encourage you to speak to your school’s counselor or special education diagnostician. Again, your CHD child does not have to have either one of these services, but I assure you that my son (HLHS) will, at least, have a Section 504 plan.
Director of Local Support (middle school principal)
Whole Hearts Foundation