Complying with federal law on accommodating students with disabilities is essential, but it is also important to ensure each student is getting every possible opportunity to access the best education available.
Transportation directors are legally required to comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In a nutshell, that section states that people defined by the law as having disabilities cannot be discriminated against or excluded from, based on their disability, any programs or agencies receiving federal funds.
As amended in 1974, people with disabilities are defined as those who have or are considered to have “a physical or mental impairment” that significantly limits a major life activity, such as “caring for one’s self, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, working, performing manual tasks, and learning.”
In simple terms, Section 504 states that organizations receiving federal funding cannot discriminate against someone with a disability.
Furthermore, “necessary accommodation” also needs to be provided. Necessary supplemental accommodation (NSA) services are those provided to people with a mental, neurological, physical, or sensory impairment or other problems that prevent them from getting program benefits in the same way that an unimpaired person would get them. If a school is providing services for disabled students, but a disabled student is unable to access them, then the services are of no value.
You may think, “I want to give disabled children the same opportunities and access that able-bodied children have. I will do what needs to be done to comply with 504 and to provide necessary accommodation.”
I am a 40-ish man who was born with cerebral palsy. When I started school, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 had only been an active piece of legislation for a few years. Looking back, the passing of this legislation must have scared a lot of superintendents, principals, business administrators, and transportation directors. School districts didn’t want to be seen as noncompliant and risk losing federal funding.
That being said, the first few years this legislation was active, any companies or organizations receiving federal funding were under the microscope to make absolutely sure they were complying with the legislation. As a result, school districts tended to act on the side of caution to make sure that they were in compliance.
Here’s the problem: disabled kids are fighters. They don’t know any different. They will fight to be normal, to be able to just do what normal kids do.
I can explain it best with what I call “the pizza principle.” I have two kids, ages 9 and 7. It’s family pizza night. There’s one slice left. They both want it. My older son will get to it first. My younger son will cry, yell, kick, punch, negotiate — whatever he thinks he has to do to get that slice from his brother.
In this analogy, my older son is the school district, as seen by the disabled student. My younger son is the disabled student. He’s fighting tooth and nail for what he wants, and the pizza is normalcy, inclusion.
I am one who is looking for my slice of pizza, but I am also someone with cerebral palsy. When I was about to start school, I was seen as having a very limited ability to achieve because of my disability. I was automatically put on a specially equipped bus with other children who also had physical, mental, and/or emotional limitations, and I was not going to be integrated into a regular kindergarten class.
By definition, the school district was in compliance with the requirements of 504 and was providing all necessary accommodation. The school district was providing transportation and an education similar to what would be provided to an able-bodied student.
The problem is, similar is not equal. I was capable of more. My family insisted that I be integrated into a regular kindergarten class, which I eventually was. However, of equal importance was that I be mainstreamed on a regular bus. It was important that I interact with able-bodied kids my age, because I didn’t see myself as different, even though that was and is the reality of the situation.
As a transportation director, you are legally required to comply with 504 and NSA, but each case is different, and needs to be viewed as such. For kids with disabilities, every day is a struggle. Some kids’ struggles are as severe as not being able to get from point A to point B without assistance, or not being able to feed or dress themselves. As a young person, my struggles were not as severe. Other than having a gait that was visibly different, I was for the most part just a normal kid on a school bus. My emotional development would have been severely stunted if my riding on a regular bus were denied. In a way, I would be the child left behind.
Emotional development is a significant part of education. We spend our whole lives interacting with our peers, and we initially develop that ability in school and, by extension, on a school bus.
As transportation directors, the goal should not be just to meet the minimum requirements of 504 and NSA. Ask yourself this question: In my compliance with 504 and providing necessary accommodation, am I doing all I can do to help educate this child?
I have spoken with transportation directors to encourage parents with “mildly disabled” children to mainstream them. I was both literally and figuratively allowed to fall and get back up. Being given that freedom made a huge difference in my life. I was never afraid to try new things.
Encourage all children to reach for their “slice of pizza.” Don’t look to the legally required minimum, but look at each case and where you can make a difference in a child’s life.