Thursday, September 17, 2020

Navigating and Understanding School Accommodations

I was 9 when I had my first surgery that gave me an ileostomy for 6 years before undergoing a straight pull thru reversal. Throughout my academic career following my first surgery, I required accommodations for my learning due to my physical health. My parents obtained a 504 plan to achieve such accommodations during my middle school and high school years. A 504 plan outlines how a school will support a student and prevent learning discrimination of students with disabilities under the civil rights law Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

My accommodations allowed me unfettered restroom access, use of a private restroom where I was able to keep extra clothing and medical supplies I may need in case of my ostomy leaking or a bowel accident after my reversal, and understanding of absences due to illness and hospitalizations. As I recall it was an easy process for my parents to obtain my 504 plans and I remember my schools being very supportive and understanding from my teachers all the way to the principals.

There are no set rules for what should be included in a 504 plan although schools are required to have written 504 policies available. There isn't any standard form or template for 504 plans. 504 plans are not part of special education and so there are fewer protections than in the special education process. To qualify for a 504 plan a child may have any disability that interferes with the child's ability to learn in a general education classroom. According to the 504 Section, a disability substantially limits one or more basic life activities that can include learning, reading, communicating, or thinking. Accommodations to learning are typically included in 504 plans to address specific challenges to learning - this doesn't mean that there are changes to what a child is taught but how they are taught through removing barriers to learning. Accommodations may include changes to the environment, instruction, or how curriculum is presented. On rare occasions, modifications may be included that do change what a child is taught or expected to learn. 

Every school is different so a full evaluation may be required including medical information and school performance. Requests for a 504 plan must be submitted in writing and should go through the 504 Coordinator - the school principal can direct parents regarding who to contact for their request. A meeting will be scheduled to determine if the child qualifies for a 504 plan and what support may be needed. It is advised to review and update the approved 504 plan once a year. Read a sample 504 plan here.

There are also Individualized Education Programs (IEP) that differ from 504 plans. An IEP is a plan for a child's special education experience in school by providing individualized special education and related services to meet the child's needs. IEPs are covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which is a federal special education law for children with disabilities. To qualify for an IEP a child requires a comprehensive evaluation and must have at least one of the disabilities listed in IDEA that affects the child's educational performance and/or ability to learn and benefit from the general education curriculum and requires specialized instruction to make progress in school. An IEP must include the child's present levels of academic and functional performance, annual education goals, services the child will receive, timing of services, any accommodations or modifications, how the child will participate in standardized tests, and how the child will be included in general education classes and school activities. An IEP team must review the IEP plan once a year and re-evaluate the child's needs every three years.

504 and IEP plans are only available to children through grades K-12. The Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act still protects college students from discrimination and college students may still receive accommodations although they will not be provided a 504 plan like in grades K-12. It's important for college students to contact the disability services at their colleges to obtain required accommodations.


  1. Excellent summary of school accommodations in the U.S. My two sons had 504 plans from elementary school through high school (and the oldest had accommodations in college, too).


    New Book: Finding a New Normal: Living Your Best Life with Chronic Illness

  2. Thank you! Accommodations can make a great difference