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“Inclusion Should Not Be an Afterthought”: Education and Legal Experts Weigh In on Plan to Update Federal Regulations
For the first time in 45 years, the U.S. Education Department is planning to update federal mandates for how schools and colleges must accommodate students with disabilities. The department is soliciting public comments about how current regulations can be improved under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Christine Ashby is the director of the Center on Disability and Inclusion at Syracuse University and a professor of Inclusive Special Education and Disability Studies.
Prof. Ashby says:
“The passage of Section 504 was a landmark and hard-fought moment in the disability rights movement. It was a tremendous step toward ending disability-based discrimination and promoting full rights of people with disabilities in education and employment settings. But 45 years later, the promise of the law has not been fully realized. Far too many students lack access to appropriate supports and services and many face diminished opportunities and segregation from nondisabled peers. While the regulations in both 504 and IDEA communicate support for the idea of education in the least restrictive environment, many students continue to receive their education in highly restrictive settings. I hope that any update to 504 would strengthen support for inclusive education and make it easier for parents and guardians to exercise their due process rights.”
Beth Ferri is a professor of Inclusive Education and Disability Studies at Syracuse University and coordinates the Doctoral program in Special Education.
Prof. Ferri says:
“Section 504 of the Rehab Act was certainly a landmark piece of legislation that we generally think of as passing in 1973. But it wasn’t until the protests that took place in April of 1977, which culminated in an almost 30-day sit in of a federal building in San Francisco led by activists like Judith Heumann and so many others that led to regulations that resulted in being able to enforce the law. Before those regulations, we didn’t really have any of the assurances that 504 promised.
Whether you are in a K-12 setting or university setting, 504, along with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, remains a bulwark of non-discrimination legislations that students rely upon in education contexts. 504 allows students to have necessary accommodation and modifications enabling them to participate equally and without discrimination. It also laid the groundwork for the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Despite the importance of this legislation, it is also true that many students remain under-served by Section 504 and IDEA. First, 504 didn’t provide the necessary guidance for ensuring students with disabilities received an equitable education while schools were dealing with all of the upheaval and challenges associated with COVID.
Second, the assurances provided by 504 (and IDEA) have always benefitted white middle class families more so than families of color or those with less financial means, leading to uneven benefits associated with 504. This means that a poor student of color, for instance, might go without a necessary accommodation or educational service, while a more affluent family can leverage cultural and financial capital in ways that take unfair advantage of these provisions in ways that exacerbate other kinds of educational inequities.
Third, students with mental health issues often fall between the cracks in our schools—not qualifying for some services and often receiving less-than-adequate or appropriate supports. As more students suffer the fallout of COVID isolation and other forms of emotional distress, we need 504 to be a tool to ensure students get the kinds of supports they need.
Finally, I would love to see stronger language in both 504 and IDEA around inclusion – such that students are not given a false choice between 1) getting the services they need but in a segregated (or restrictive) setting or 2) being included with their peers, but having to forgo necessary services. We continue to conflate the level of service a child or student needs with the restrictiveness of their placement.”
Arlene Kanter is a disability law expert and the founder of the Syracuse University College of Law Disability Law and Policy Program.
Prof. Kanter says:
“The promise of section 504 remains unfulfilled. Barriers still exist within the law and its regulations that make it difficult, if not impossible, for some qualified students with disabilities to access the accommodations and services they need.
Further the way in which section 504 and its regulations are currently written, and applied, they limit the types of damages that may be awarded to students and their families who prevail in section 504 cases.
Third, section 504 allows school districts, universities, and colleges to be relieved of any responsibility to remedy discrimination against students with disabilities if they can show that to do so would be an undue burden. Unfortunately, courts have found undue burdens leaving the students, themselves, with no remedy whatsoever. What that means in practice is that these students are effectively denied an education.
These are just some of the issues that I believe should be addressed in the current effort to amend section 504 regulations and to strengthen those regulations to provide greater protections for students with disabilities particularly in higher education.”
Beth Myers is a professor of Inclusive Education and Executive Director of the Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education at Syracuse University. She oversees InclusiveU, a federally-recognized model program for college students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Prof Myers says:
“Section 504 was an extraordinarily important part of the Disability Rights movement. We are now 45 years into it, and 504 needs to be updated to reflect the full scope of its intentions.
The disabled activists who pushed 504 into legislation in the 1970s were revolutionary, and their work has influenced the lives of millions of people. We now have a new generation of Americans who need to be heard.
We can view disability through a medical model, in which disability is internal to the person and needs to be rehabilitated, cured, or cared for. Alternatively, we can view disability through a social lens, where we recognize that the limitations disabled people face are imposed by our society and world. Instead of trying to fix the person, this view pushes us to fix the systems and supports around them.
We recognize disability as an important part of diversity, and we celebrate that in all forms. That also means recognizing the hardships that disabled people face because of our societal structures, and pushing the system to be more supportive of the variety of bodies and minds that people have. It means supporting disabled people, families, teachers, and community members.
We still see discrimination against disabled students and families in schools every day. Thousands of children across the country don’t have access to the general education curriculum. Schools can be welcoming and nurturing, or they can be exclusionary and isolating for children with disabilities and their families. Inclusion should not be an afterthought or even something we have to accommodate. Inclusion and meeting the needs of disabled students needs to be a priority. Strengthening 504 is a step in that direction, but not the only one we need to take.”
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