About Mental Illness, Disability, and Education

IDEAMental illness can make going to school really challenging, no matter where you are in your education. Some readers have asked us about Section 504 and how it can help folks balance school and life, especially when they’re experiencing tough symptoms. Here is some information that might be helpful.

What is Section 504?

It is a civil-rights law that says schools cannot discriminate against people with disabilities—students with disabilities have to have their needs met as adequately as those without disabilities. If you have a disability, Section 504 requires that you must still able to participate in any program or activity at your school. Any school that receives money from the federal government needs to follow this law.

How do I know if I have a disability?

There are a few different ways to define a disability:

  1. A physical or mental health problem that limits a major life activity
  2. Having a problem like that in the past, that you saw a doctor for
  3. Other people thinking you have a problem, whether or not you have it

A major life activity could be something like seeing, walking, hearing, or caring for yourself.

Disabilities can be things like blindness, deafness, diabetes, migraines, learning disabilities, anxiety, depression, or allergies. Any of these things can make life activities hard or impossible—and in this case, can cause you to have a hard time in school.

What do schools have to do because of Section 504?

Schools have to provide free, appropriate public education to any student with a disability.

  • Free: The student does not have to pay out of pocket
  • Appropriate: The education fits students and their needs
  • Public: Public school district, university, or other educational center (like a local library that does classes)
  • Education: Must be provided to every person with a disability

How does Section 504 work?

You will be a part of a Section 504 plan with your school. The school works with you and your supports to decide what is best. You and your supports list the things you need so you can be involved in the activity. The school lists things they will do to help you while you are at school. For example, if you will need extra time to take an exam, the school would sign an agreement that says every teacher/professor would allow you extra time to complete exams.

You have to provide documentation that shows how your disability makes school difficult. The meeting for the 504 plan may include these things:

  • Grades
  • Staff/teachers noticing that you’re having a problem
  • Medical records
  • Testing done outside the school
  • Testing done in the school
  • Attendance records
  • Doctor’s diagnosis

Not all of these are required, but usually schools ask for more than one source of information. Keeping track of your own symptoms and the times that things are harder for you helps people to understand what you’re going through.

Where can I find more information?

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Moderator ★

Hi! The moderator is a research team member with a background in behavioral health. We're here to help answer your questions and stimulate some great conversation! We don't provide therapy and are not available 24-7 so please if you are in crisis, go to our crisis page: https://sova.pitt.edu/i-need-help-now We look forward to talking to you!

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