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What is a 504 anyway?

May 23, 2009
By Lauren LeFebvre Executive director of the Tri-Lakes Center for Independence

It seems as if every niche in society has its own set of acronyms. When you're starting out as the newbie in a group, whether it's a job, volunteer service, moving into a new neighborhood, etc., there is a learning curve.

I swear, you know you've "made it" when you hear someone spout out an entire sentence of various letter combinations and you understand and respond correctly-on purpose! Independent Living is lousy with acronyms. I use them regularly and sometimes they follow me home. Yesterday, I told my husband I had looked all over town for a specific light bulb he asked me to get. I said, "I went above and beyond looking for this thing, it's something we have to special order, I even went to SED."

Apparently, I have some sort of inside knowledge that the state education department has a supply of secret light bulbs. As far as I know, they do not, but CED (Consolidated Electrical Distributors) carries most types of light bulbs.

Let me tell you, even after five years in this field, I still get floored with something I haven't heard before. Most things are just letter combinations, and after a few minutes of getting the gist of the conversation, you can figure them out. There is one that is tossed around regularly that I just wasn't sure of, probably because it is numbers and not letters - 504. I had a sense of what a 504 was, but certainly not enough to write a book or even this column about it. The term 504 is mentioned at a variety of different meetings pertaining to a variety of different subject matters, including education, housing, etc. So finally, I researched 504. Wow! Come to find out, 504 is "book worthy," but not today, and not by me. So, I'll give you the highlights.

When people say 504, they are referring to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This is a federal requirement, not a federal "good idea." Section 504 basically says that all entities that receive federal funds must comply with federal accessibility requirements. That's why 504 is tossed around so much. Think of all the entities that receive federal funding-public housing, educational facilities, hospitals, grantees-the list is huge. If your organization takes a dime of federal money, Section 504 applies to you.

So, what does that really mean? Well, in different places it means different things. The one common denominator is physical and programmatic access. The organization must be physically accessible to people with disabilities by meeting the minimum guidelines set forth by the American's with Disabilities Act. This effects HUD-subsidized housing but does not pertain to a private landlord who has a tenant who receives public assistance for housing.

The Section 504 regulations define an accessible dwelling unit as a unit that is located on an accessible route and can be approached, entered, and used by individuals with physical disabilities. A unit that is on an accessible route and is adaptable and otherwise in compliance with the standards set forth in 24 CFR 8.32 (a subsection of 504) is accessible.

In addition, the Section 504 regulations impose specific accessibility requirements for new construction and alteration of housing and non-housing facilities in HUD assisted programs. TLCIL staff is well-versed in federal accessibility requirements and can help you determine if your organization meets the accessibility standards and can also provide you with suggestions on how to become accessible without breaking the bank.

The next place I hear 504 mentioned is in educational settings. Truth be told, up until I did this research yesterday, I always thought 504 was related only to education because "504" in usually followed by the word "plan." Once I actually read Section 504 I thought there were two separate 504's. Great, that's confusing. One is physical accessibility, and one has to do with education. Thankfully, I was wrong. They are both the same 504. (By the way, did I mention Section 504 is really, really long?) Most schools receive federal funding-ta da-504. In this instance, programmatic accessibility is the key player. There are two basic "plans" available for students with disabilities-Individualized Educational Plan (IEP, yay another acronym) and a 504. IEP's are developed for students who have a learning disability. 504's are designed to assist students with a medically documented disability. Yes, some medically documented disabilities go hand in hand with learning disabilities. A 504 Plan provides classroom accommodations for students who need them in order for them to perform to the best of their abilities. Examples of some accommodations are: preferential seating; having

instructions repeated frequently; visual aids, charts and graphs; organizational aids such as a homework planner or journal; colored as opposed to black and white copies of graphs and charts; and, allowing for breaks when needed.

Believe me, everything mentioned here is just a drop in the bucket as far as 504 goes, and IEP's, for that matter. You've just gotten a very brief description of housing and educational requirements. There is much, much more. TLCIL staff is always available to explain and assist anyone, whether you represent an entity that receives federal funds or you are a person with a disability who thinks Section 504 can help you, with sorting out the facts from the myths surrounding these requirements.

If I've been doing this for as long as I've been doing this and only had an inkling of what 504 meant, there have got to be questions out there.



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