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Federal Laws

Federal Disability Laws


Civil Rights Protections for Persons with Disabilities

Following are descriptions of some of the Federal laws that have implications for students or staff members who are living with HIV infection or AIDS. Congress occasionally amends laws such as these, and the executive branch periodically revises the implementing guidelines. Court decisions also affect how these laws are implemented. Policymakers and administrators should always check the current legal parameters.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973


  • Civil Rights Protections for Persons with Disabilities

    Both HIV infection and AIDS are defined as disabilities, and so federal civil rights laws intended to protect the rights of persons with disabilities fully apply.

    Section 504 prohibits institutions that receive federal funds from denying services or discriminating because of a disabling condition.

    Legal recourses are allowed if a school denies or alters a student’s education for no other reason than HIV infection.
    • Includes participation in a school-sponsored athletic program, club, transportation service, or any other activity.
    • Schools must allow students with HIV infection to participate if the student is "otherwise qualified," that is, if he or she meets the requirements for any student to participate.
      Example: A school must allow a student with HIV infection to play in the school band if the student is "otherwise qualified", that is, if his or her musical skills meet the band’s standard requirements. Example: A school cannot bar a student from riding a school bus because of HIV infection.
    • School officials must not tolerate harassment of a student with HIV infection on school grounds or at school activities/functions.

    The law protects all persons with disabilities, not just students, from discrimination in public institutions that receive federal funds.
    • Parents and family members with HIV infection cannot be treated any differently than others.

    Section 504 also includes anyone who is "regarded as having an impairment."
    • Individuals who are merely perceived to have HIV infection, or treated as having the infection are also protected from discrimination.

      Example: A child who is rumored to be infected with HIV cannot be made to eat alone.

Section 504 requires every school district to appoint a compliance officer to help implement the Rehabilitation Act.

  • Educational Rights under Section 504

    Every student with a disability—including every student with HIV infection—is to be provided a “free, appropriate public education” that meets his or her educational needs to the same extent as other students.
    • Generally requires that a student with a disability remain in the regular educational environment, with the assistance of supplementary aids or services, if needed.
    • This requirement applies unless someone can demonstrate that the child cannot be appropriately educated there.

    If a child cannot be educated in a regular classroom and needs specialized services of some sort:
    • The school is required to determine the child’s educational needs on an individualized basis.
    • Evaluation and placement procedures must conform to those specified in the U.S. Department of Education’s regulations.
    • The school must provide the placement, aids, and services identified as necessary to meet the student’s individual needs.
    • The federal government does not assist with funding to pay for these services, unless the child is also eligible under IDEA.

    Developing an individualized education program (IEP) plan is one way to satisfy a school’s legal obligations under Section 504, but it is not a standard requirement. An individualized health plan (IHP) is another way.
    • Schools must periodically revisit and revise a plan as often as necessary to ensure that the student’s educational needs are continually being met.

    Parents and guardians have due process rights under Section 504.
    • A school must notify a student’s parent or guardian of actions regarding the identification, evaluation, and placement of the student.
    • The parent/guardian has the right to appeal the school’s decision.
    • The appeals process must be fair and prompt.
In practice, it is rare that a school proceeds to plan and provide special services unless the student’s parent or guardian fully participate in the process and give written permission.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (ORC) is charged with drawing up regulations and enforcing Section 504.

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Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)



The ADA builds upon and extends the anti-discrimination provisions of Section 504.

Non-sectarian private schools, libraries, museums, auditoriums, and day care centers must conform to the requirements of the ADA whether or not they receive federal funds.
  • Parochial schools and day care centers directly operated by religious organizations are exempt from the anti-discrimination provisions (Separate provisions of the law’s employment protections do still apply).
The regulations for the ADA are more general than Section 504 and are administered by other federal agencies, rather than the U.S. Department of Education.
  • The U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) recommends that schools use Section 504 regulations to interpret the ADA.
One area in which the ADA goes further than Section 504 is protecting from discrimination those with a "known relationship or association" with a disabled person, such as family members, friends, or anyone else who associates with a person living with HIV infection.
  • School administrators must intervene if they notice a student is being verbally abused because of a relative’s HIV infection.
  • Also, if a performance group has a member with HIV infection and a scheduled school appearance is canceled out of fear of HIV, everyone in the group has grounds to sue.
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Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)


The IDEA is a funding program. It helps school districts implement their obligations to disable students. (Section 504 and the ADA are civil rights protection laws.)

The guidelines defining a student’s eligibility for the program are more specific than those in Section 504, which is broadly written to protect everyone with a disability.
  • Eligible students must qualify by:
    • Age, and
    • An impairment specified in the law, and
    • Requires special educational or related services because of that impairment.
Any student is eligible who has "limited strength, vitality or alertness, due to chronic or acute health problems…that adversely affects a child’s educational performance."
  • Children and youth with developmental disabilities, such as those with damage to their young nervous system caused by HIV, are nearly always eligible under IDEA.
  • In practice, if a student is ill and deemed to need services under Section 504, the student is probably also eligible under IDEA.
  • Eligibility means the student’s school can get federal funding assistance to educate the student.
IDEA is intended to help students with disabilities obtain a free, appropriate public education "in the least restrictive environment."
  • To the greatest extent feasible, schools must educate a student with HIV infection with other children in the regular classroom.
Schools are required to prepare an individualized education program (IEP) and update it at least annually, using a process detailed in the federal regulations.
  • The IEP sets out a plan for special educational and related services designed to meet the unique educational needs of a student with a disability.
  • Only an IEP team has the legal authority to enroll a student in a federally funded special education program, or to change a student’s existing IEP.
  • A parent, guardian, or school staff member can trigger an IEP planning process.
  • Schools are required to make strenuous good faith efforts to involve parents or guardians in every aspect of the IEP development and implementation process.
School leaders should be careful not to let program-funding incentives influence their decisions about a student’s identification, placement, or services. A student must have a genuine learning, physical, and/or mental impairment to justify providing federally funded services to the student.

Schools have to provide opportunities for parents/guardians to examine records and appeal decisions. In practice, it is unusual that a school would proceed to provide services without the permission of the student’s parent or guardian.
**Adapted from: "Someone At School has AIDS," National Association of State Boards of Education

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