Accessibility in Schools: US Laws for K-12

October 10, 2017 BY ELISA LEWIS
Updated: March 15, 2023

Discrimination of any kind should not be tolerated anywhere, but especially in the classroom. Understanding accessibility laws and anti-discrimination laws that apply to K-12 schools can be a bit tricky. Here’s a break down of the accessibility laws apply to K-12 schools and what exactly each of them mean.

ADA Title II


Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits disability discrimination by all public entities at the local and state level. This includes schools. Under Title II schools – regardless of whether they receive federal funds – are required to comply with several regulations:

  • May not refuse to allow a person with a disability to participate in a service, program, or activity simply because the person has a disability.
  • Must provide programs and services in an integrated setting, unless separate or different measures are necessary to ensure equal opportunity.
  • Must eliminate unnecessary eligibility standards or rules that deny individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to enjoy their services, programs or activities unless “necessary” for the provisions of the service, program or activity.
  • Are required to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, and procedures that deny equal access to individuals with disabilities, unless a fundamental alteration in the program would result.
  • Must furnish auxiliary aids and services when necessary to ensure effective communication, unless an undue burden or fundamental alteration would result.
  • May provide special benefits, beyond those required by the regulation, to individuals with disabilities.
  • May not place special charges on individuals with disabilities to cover the costs of measures necessary to ensure nondiscriminatory treatment, such as making modifications required to provide program accessibility or providing qualified interpreters.
  • Shall operate their programs so that, when viewed in their entirety, they are readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 504 leaves nothing up for questioning regarding civil rights for individuals with disabilities. It clearly states:

“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States […] shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service.”
This law defines individuals with disabilities as “persons with a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities.” It also expands the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which applies to K-12 schools, to protect a broader range of children with disabilities. In addition to federal programs and agencies, Section 504 applies to “local educational agency, system of vocational education, or other school system,” prohibiting K-12 schools from denying participation in education or extracurriculars because of a child’s disability.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act


Section 508 became an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act in 1998 when an older version of the law was updated. This section covers access to federal programs and services in regards to electronic and information technology. Section 508 is a bit more ambiguous than Section 504, as it’s unclear to some, whether federally funded programs must comply with Section 508. Despite this, there are other regulations which require these programs to provide accessible tech and web content. One example of this is the Assistive Technology Act, which will not provide funding to states unless they guarantee compliance with Section 508.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures students with a disability are provided with Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that meets their specific individual needs. IDEA was previously known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) from 1975 to 1990, at which time it became IDEA. The overarching purpose of IDEA is to afford children with disabilities the same opportunity for education as those students without disabilities.

IDEA is composed of six main elements to further its purpose. These six elements are:

  1. Individualized Education Program (IEP)
  2. Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
  3. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
  4. Appropriate Evaluation
  5. Parent and Teacher Participation
  6. Procedural Safeguards

In addition to these six key elements, there are a few other components of IDEA, including: Confidentiality of Information, Transition Services, and Discipline.

State Laws

In addition to federal laws, many states have their own accessibility laws. Typically, these laws reference or emulate Section 508, covering technology. In addition, the 2004 amendments to the IDEA require each state to develop a State Performance Plan (SPP) and Annual Performance Report (APR) that evaluates the state’s efforts to implement the requirements and purposes of the IDEA, and describes how the state will improve its implementation.

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