504 Plans for Students with Chronic Illnesses: A Guide for Parents and Students

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When my son, Aaron was 11 and needed help in school to deal with his migraines and Crohn’s Disease, I didn’t know what a 504 plan was.  Aaron attended two different schools during the first two years of his diagnosis. In both schools, the guidance counselors were not sure whether or how 504 plans were used to help students with chronic illnesses. We were given a lot of misinformation, and little help for our son.  I researched 504 plans, and spoke with other parents, a social worker, and a lawyer—all who had experience with the rights of students with chronic illnesses.  We got a 504 plan in place for Aaron, which has helped him a great deal in school. I hope this guide helps other parents and students, so they do not have to dig as much for answers.

Please share your stories, advice, and ideas! Does your child (or do you) have a 504 plan?  Did the plan help? Have you had any problems getting accommodations in school? Have any advice or stories you’d like to share? — Rachel

  Want to See Some Examples of 504 Plans?

I’m sharing Aaraon’s and Jack’s plans here for those who are trying to get plans together for themselves, their kids, or one of their students.  In addition to my kids’ plans, I have links to more than a dozen plans shared by others with different chronic illnesses.

What is a 504 Plan?

A 504 plan is used in schools to help students with chronic illnesses and other disabilities. Each plan outlines accommodations that are custom-made to fit the needs of an individual student. 504 plans are formal and binding plans created under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

A 504 plan can be requested by parents, students, or school administrators and is used at the pre-school through college levels.  Accommodations can include things like: helping students get class notes and materials when they are absent; allowing students to take breaks to deal with their medical needs; providing a peanut-free environment due to severe allergies; allowing a diabetic student to eat snacks during class; and allowing students with digestive disorders to use a bathroom without restrictions.

There are differences in the types of accommodations provided at the elementary and secondary school level compared with the college level. Accommodations are generally more generous in pre-school through secondary school and more limited at the college level.

Who Can Have a 504 Plan in School?

504 plans are for “qualified” students in pre-school through college.  In order to qualify for a 504 plan, a student must have “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (Federal Dept. of Education, Office of Civil Rights-OCR).”

“Major life activities” include, but are not limited to:  “functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions (OCR).”  By definition, most chronic illnesses effect a major life activity in some way, so, students with diseases like diabetes, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis), asthma, and migraines could qualify, for example.

Having a diagnosis of a disease does not automatically qualify a student to have a 504 plan; “the illness must cause a substantial limitation on the student’s ability to learn or another major life activity (OCR).”  And yet, the definition of a “substantial limitation” in Section 504 is quite broad. The laws allow for students to qualify for 504 plans EVEN WHEN:

  • Their illnesses are in remission;
  • Their illnesses are episodic in nature,  such as epilepsy or migraines;
  • Their symptoms are mitigated by treatments; and
  • They are doing well academically.

Students with chronic illnesses may not always need to rely on their accommodations, but with a 504 plan in place, there is no need to scramble when a student is not doing well.

Would a student with a chronic illness ever not qualify for a 504 plan?  Yes.  If a student has an illness that has only a minor impact on his life, even during episodes or flare-ups, then he probably doesn’t need a 504 plan, and may not qualify for one.   However, students may still want to let teachers know about their medical conditions and have an informal plan to deal with times when they need a little help or understanding.  Read more…

Check out these links to sample 504 plans.

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