by Maddie Qualls, staff writer
Inhibited by pain, discomfort, or preoccupation with their health concerns, students with disabilities, health conditions, or disorders have a more challenging experience in school than their peers. Luckily, 504 plans are available to these students.
According to MCHS assistant principal and 504 coordinator Andrew Campbell, 504 plans are “part of federal civil rights laws that help people with disabilities access education and work.” Before this legislation, there was no protection for people with disabilities against unequal treatment from businesses and schools, even if their condition only required minor adjustments to workplace practices or conditions. In regards to education, 504 plans create an official agreement between a school and a student that gives the student a customized set of terms that modify aspects of their school life to make their learning experience as equitable as possible.
When asked what common conditions warrant students to have 504 plans, Campbell explained, “504 plans only need to be established if the student has a disability that is currently significantly impacting their ability to participate in regular school activities, and minor accommodations can be made that will allow them to access their learning.” According to Campbell, 504 plans frequently cover physical disabilities or traumatic brain injuries, mental health conditions like severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, or minor learning disabilities like Attention Deficit Disorder that don’t meet the qualifications for special education services.
In order to set up a 504 plan, a student needs to have proof of their condition, such as a confirmation from a doctor or specialist. Then, they work with the 504 coordinator at their school, like Campbell. They will set up the terms in their plan; some common terms include breaks from class, extensions on assignments, and excused absences or tardies. After it is set up, the student meets with their teachers to talk about their new adjustments, and make sure all the teachers understand what their plan entails. Currently, 75 students at MCHS have active 504 plans.
MCHS freshman Gavin Newton, who has a 504 plan for diabetes, says “the plan is helpful because it makes teachers more understanding,” and it relieves some stress surrounding completing assignments on time. The terms of Newton’s plan that he uses the most are that he “can eat in class whenever [he needs] to, or leave class whenever [he] needs to.”
One MCHS student, who wished to remain anonymous, has a 504 plan for an autoimmune disease called cold urticaria. Because her condition is “more about the environment, and has to do with the temperature,” the most helpful accommodations for her include having preferential seating, so she can be in a comfortable learning environment, and being able to “stay in the gym,” during PE class, “and do exercises there instead of running outside where it [is] really cold in the morning.”
Although these terms are helpful, there is no perfect solution. Newton said, “there are some parts that are hard because if I miss a class, and the teacher cannot meet with me before the next class, then I will not really understand what they are talking about.” He also said, “if I have to miss a test, it can be frustrating because I have to use my own extra time to take it, rather than just taking it when all the other kids are.” His diabetes does not only make life difficult for him; he says that if he misses group work, “the group has to wait for [him].” This can create stress among all the individuals, and guilt on the student who had to ask for the extension.
Often when other students hear about these modifications, they express jealousy. According to Newton, when his peers notice that he has the ability to eat in class, and take a break when he needs to, they say, “‘Oh, you’re so lucky.’” Even though it sounds nice to have a 504 plan, the exceptions students get are not for having fun, but rather because of medical needs.
Common causes for students asking for accommodations include doctor’s appointments, debilitating pain or discomfort, the need to have their situation or the environment in the classroom adjusted, impaired ability to work or focus, and the need to take a moment in or out of class to address a health concern, such as maintaining normal blood sugar levels by being able to eat outside the school schedule’s designated time for eating, as Newton can do.
Despite this, when asked if he ever feels hesitant to ask for adjustments, Newton responded, “[Yes], at times, if it has been happening so commonly, I do not want [my teachers] to think I am just taking advantage of it. Similarly, the anonymous student said, “I used to [be hesitant to ask for an accommodation] when I first got [my 504 plan] because I thought it was my issue, and I needed to figure it out.” Ultimately, she realized “that is what the plan is for,” so she eventually accepted that “[teachers] are not going to think that [she] is trying to get out of something” because “it’s an issue, and they respect that.” Likewise, Newton said, “you just have to [ask] because it is important to make sure you are feeling fine.”
One positive aspect of distance learning, says Campbell, is “that students aren’t using their accommodations because there is already so much flexibility built into their classes they are able to access the activities without any additional changes.”