Kids with arthritis sometimes need special consideration during the school day, whether it’s being allowed to keep a water bottle on their desk all afternoon, or getting an extra few minutes to make the trek from one classroom to another.
Fortunately, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is on your side. This law specifies that no one with a disability can be prevented from participating in federally funded programs – and that includes elementary, secondary and post-secondary education. Under the law, chronic conditions such as juvenile arthritis (JA) fall into the disability category.
Enacting a formal 504 plan can be done at any point in the school year. However, if you have a diagnosis in hand, it’s best to set things up as early as possible.
The first step is to meet with a teacher or other school officials to discuss your child’s diagnosis and the need for a plan. Teachers can call such a meeting if they notice a child has needs, but that’s more common with the 504 plan’s close cousin, the IEP, which applies to students with special education needs.
In the United States, each school district sets its own criteria for meeting 504 requirements. A committee made up of school officials, parents or legal guardians and someone with knowledge of the child’s medical history, meets to review the case.
When the child is declared eligible – which can take up to a month – that same group can work to put the plan together.
Here are steps you can follow to create your child’s 504 plan:
- Schedule a meeting with your child’s team. This can be made up of parents/legal guardians, teachers, principals, physicians, therapists or any other appropriate individuals.
- Be patient. This process can take anywhere from one week to several months to put together, based on the availability of team members and the need for any medical paperwork, doctors’ notes, or anything else that would be helpful in creating the plan.
- Talk about the difficulties your child may encounter during the day and brainstorm ways to provide solutions. For instance, think about how your child moves through an average day and how he copes with pain and stiffness. He may need extra time for bathroom breaks, might need to be allowed to use a rolling backpack instead of a shoulder bag or be provided a space to rest near the nurse’s station when he’s feeling bad.
- Put your plan in writing. When administration or faculty changes, which will happen, your plan will help educate new teachers about your child’s needs and accommodations.
- Review and revise annually. Your child’s 504 plan is a living document, which means it changes as your child’s needs change. It’s a good rule of thumb to review the plan at least annually, but more frequent reviews can be scheduled too.
Taking time to meet and talk about possible changes to your 504 plan midyear is a good idea, especially as kids get older and shift from being in one classroom all day long to changing classes during the day. Transition years between elementary and middle school or middle school and high school are also key points to look over the plan. Most schools have an orientation night toward the end of the spring semester – you’ll want to attend and scope out your child’s new school. That’s also a good opportunity to bring up the subject with new teachers.
Ideally, a good 504 plan:
- Lists the specific accommodations, supports or services that will be provided and who will provide them. (Click here for a sampling of accommodations often used for kids with JA.)
- Names the person responsible for ensuring the plan is implemented
- Is distributed to all of the child’s teachers, specialists, and support staff
- Is placed in the child’s school file.
And remember, keeping the lines of communication open with your child’s teachers and school officials is the best way to ensure success.