Does your school receive any federal funds?  If the answer is yes, then disability laws, including the ADA, Rehab Act, and IDEA, do cover the students at your school. All Arizona district schools receive funding through the Arizona Department of Education, which includes federal funds.  Most Arizona charter schools receive federal funding. Even if your school does not receive ANY federal funds, some of these laws protect your students and result in obligations on the school’s part.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects students with disabilities from discrimination by public entities (Title II).[1]  Students enrolled in public schools (including charter schools) are covered by Title II because it prohibits disability-based discrimination by all state and local governments, regardless of whether the entities receive federal funds.[2]  A student has a disability if s/he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded by the school as having such an impairment.  Such a student is protected from discrimination on the basis of disability.  For example, a school cannot, because of a student’s disability, deny admittance, deny an equal opportunity to participate in all school activities, or fail to ensure effective communication with the student.  Practically speaking, Title II requires that a school make reasonable modifications to its policies, practices, and procedures and/or provide auxiliary aids and services to ensure that students with disabilities can participate in school in all ways in which students without disabilities are able to participate.  There are some exceptions—for instance, if a school can demonstrate that a modification would cause a fundamental alteration to a program, then it will not be required to make the modification (a school should not rely on the exception without consultation with legal counsel).

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides federal funds to State education agencies (Arizona Department of Education) and local education agencies (school districts) to ensure that students who meet the eligibility requirements for IDEA coverage receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) through the provision of special education and related services.[3]  Students who are eligible for protection under the IDEA must have a written individualized education program (IEP) drafted by an IEP team.  The requirements for eligibility, members of the IEP team, and components of the IEP itself are set out in the Arizona Administrative Code at R7-2-401, et al.  For many students with IEPs, a FAPE will require accommodations be provided and these accommodations would likely also be required under Title II of the ADA.  Therefore, if the accommodations necessary to obtain FAPE are written into an IEP, the school will generally have met its obligations under the ADA.  For instance, where a student with a disability requires special transportation in order to have an equal opportunity to participate in the school’s programs, that transportation would be required as a reasonable modification to policies, procedures, and practices under the ADA and, if the student has been determined eligible under the IDEA, would be written into the student’s IEP.  If the transportation is provided pursuant to the IEP, the school has also met its ADA obligations.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disability (including students) by recipients of federal financial assistance.  The courts have told us that the definition of disability and all of the obligations created under the ADA also apply to individuals who are covered by the Rehabilitation Act.  Therefore, a public school that receives federal funds has the same obligations under Section 504 as it has under Title II of the ADA.  However, Section 504 as it applies to students also has many procedural similarities to the IDEA.  For instance, a student who has a disability (under the definition described in the paragraph discussing the ADA) must be evaluated and a Section 504 plan drafted, in much the same way that a student who qualifies for special education or related services under the IDEA must be evaluated and an IEP drafted, because the school has an obligation under Section 504 to provide a FAPE to the student.  Schools must convene a 504 team to discuss the student’s disability and the accommodations/modifications that are necessary to ensure that the student will have access to a FAPE.

For public schools, the intersection of these disability laws can be confusing.  Most importantly, remember that public schools subject to any or all of these laws will have an obligation to ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate in the programs, benefits, and services offered by the school and to receive a free appropriate public education.

This blog should be used for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader and should not be construed as legal advice. If you need legal advice, please feel free to contact Education Law Attorney, Cathleen M. Dooley at 480.461.5331, log on to udallshumway.com, or contact an attorney in your area.

[1] 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et al. Students enrolled at private schools are protected by Title III of the ADA.

[2] 42 U.S.C. § 12131(2).

[3] 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1419.