An Interpretation of the Heart and Spirit of Section 504

Published April 5, 2021

"No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States," Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act reads, "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."

But every good story has a twist

The story of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act has a great plot. It has interesting characters; it's full of drama, comedy, and conflict; and it has a firecracker climactic conclusion, too. Yet, given a modern twist, it goes like this.

Once upon there was a seemingly perfect world, turned upside down by a group of societal misfits. Banding together, they used their superpowers, "dismissable abilities," to restore the imperfect world they were made to live in.

Their supporters all rallied in solidarity: Disabled Veterans, Black Panthers, Women's Rights, LGBT groups, churches, unions, politicians, and others.


People with disabilities are recognized with civil rights to live fully productive lives. This includes the same access to jobs, education, recreation, health care, and public transportation.

Yet, something is missing. Ah, I know what it is. I need to explain the heart of 504.


  1. Brookings states, "Only 40 percent of adults with disabilities in their prime working years (ages 25-54) have a job, compared to 79 percent of all prime-age adults. And 4 out of every 5 working-age Americans with a disability are unemployed."

    Those in the "disability culture" know many people with disabilities work from home. Why? Because many skilled and qualified people with disabilities are not recruited, hired, or advanced. Bias abounds in the workplace, and people with disabilities feel it is unsafe to disclose their disability.

  2. A nationwide UCLA survey (PDF) states one in five students had at least one learning disability or psychological disorder.

    Mental impairments such as depression and anxiety skyrocketed with COVID-19, giving rise to many questions.

    If disabled students struggle at school does it mean they are struggling at work and home?

    How does disability affect learning?

    Disability and inclusion: what do they look like?

    Disabilities and learning differences: how does one teach around "limitations"?

    And the Big question, what can be done?

Getting at the heart of 504 today

Scanning and memorizing 504 details bypasses the heart and spirit of the 504.

One billion people in the world are disabled. That leaves 7 billion people who do not identify as disabled. Sadly, it is common to perceive "disability" with fear or lack of understanding in how disability related to people personally and their lives. Some people are empathetic, yet struggle to understand how disability inclusion works in school and in the work environment.

You may still be asking, "What does the 504 and disability culture want everyone to know?"

Remember Stephen Hawking? He was an intellectual genius. He was also severely disabled. He struggled with mobility and speaking, which became worse until he was finally paralyzed from the waist down and couldn't speak. Even though his body had quit working, his mind stayed genius.

In an article for The Mighty, Karin Willison asked, "How many Stephen Hawkings have been overlooked because they can’t afford an AAC device or access transportation to college? How many potential writers, business owners and teachers are out there struggling to prove their ALS, blindness or cerebral palsy doesn’t make them incapable of achieving great things?"

Willison also wrote:

Most people with disabilities aren’t extraordinary geniuses like Stephen Hawking, nor should that kind of expectation be pushed on us. But we all have something to offer, a gift to share with the world. We can contribute — if we’re given the chance. If you admired Stephen Hawking, honor his life by doing your part to bring support systems and opportunities to more people with disabilities. Encourage a child with a disability in your school or neighborhood. Hire someone with a disability at your company. Cast an actor with a disability in your play or movie. Look for the talented people around you whose potential others may not see.

We can all relate to disability

Few can avoid illness, and accident, a life event that shakes a person at their core. Few can avoid depression, anxiety, or mental stress. The negative impact of the "uncontrollables" in life can be disabling. However, it doesn't have to be crushing and we don't have to exclude people. We can build with disability in mind.

What people with disabilities want are "way-finders" and continued progress towards the heart of the 504.

Continue to recognize barriers in advancing or dismissing abilities. Reflect on how to eliminate disability exclusion and "find a way" for disability inclusion. Normalize disability and focus on design with all in mind.

Yes, disability can have a negative impact on people work, home, and beyond. However, becoming way-finders and working in the heart and spirit of the 504 has a high rate of return on everyone's bottom line.