When Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, many of its provisions were modeled after Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Both laws protect people with mental or physical disabilities from discrimination. Disabilities covered under the laws include anything that substantially limits basic life activities such as walking, seeing or hearing. Despite basic similarities, the two laws have several major differences in their scope and operation.
A Question of Scope
The biggest difference between the ADA and Section 504 concerns which institutions fall within the scope of the laws' requirements. While Section 504 only applies to federal government agencies and other institutions that receive the majority of their funding from the federal government, the ADA covers all other businesses and entities, including state and local governments, corporations and privately-owned businesses. Religious institutions with more than 15 employees also must comply with Title I of the ADA, which prohibits discrimination in employment. When it comes to education, Section 504 requires public schools to provide free, appropriate public education for disabled students. The ADA doesn't require that directly, but its general accommodation provisions apply to both public and nonsectarian private schools.
The University Context
State-sponsored universities receive federal funds, so they must comply both with Section 504 and the ADA. A university student must identify herself as someone with disabilities in need of accommodation to be eligible for the protection of the laws. Her university may require her to provide documentation of her disability, and the need for accommodation, before providing that accommodation. However, once a disability is established, reasonable accommodation must be provided. Some students may have mental or physical conditions that impair their ability to learn, take tests or complete assignments. Universities accommodate these students by making academic adjustments, such as allowing additional time to complete tests or assignments, or providing tutorial services.
Section 504 requires all federal agencies or federally funded institutions to have a compliance officer on staff who ensures that all policies and accommodations are adequate under the law. The ADA requires public institutions to have an ADA compliance officer as well. Both Section 504 and the ADA require all entities to post notice of nondiscrimination requirements and to adopt and publish grievance procedures that provide due process. Because Section 504 applies to public elementary and secondary schools, it has additional procedures for children with disabilities. For example, the law requires the school to give notice to parents if their child has been evaluated or placed in special education classes. Section 504 also requires local educational institutions to provide impartial hearings for parents who disagree with their child's placement. Parents have the opportunity to participate and may be represented by an attorney if they wish. The ADA doesn't require any particular due process procedures.
Enforcement of Rights
The ADA and Section 504 also differ in terms of how disabled people enforce their rights. Specifically, Title I of the ADA, which covers discrimination in the employment context, requires complaints of violations to be filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 180 days of the date of the incident. The EEOC has local field offices in 50 cities throughout the U.S. to facilitate these complaints. People with disabilities cannot sue for violations in federal court until the EEOC sends a letter confirming their right to do so. Under Section 504 and the other parts of the ADA, however, disabled individuals can enforce their rights in court immediately without first filing a complaint or waiting for a formal "right to sue" notification. Additionally, each federal agency covered by Section 504 has its own set of compliance regulations. Those agency-specific regulations are enforced by the agency itself.
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