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Defining Disability

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 defines individuals with disabilities as those who have a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment. This category includes physiological disorders such as hearing impairment, vision impairment, or speech impairments; neurological disorders such as muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis; psychological disorders such as mental retardation, mental illness, or learning disabilities. The legislative definition does not spell out specific illnesses or impairments because of the difficulty of ensuring an all-inclusive list.

The deciding factor in determining whether or not a person suffers from a disability under Section 504 is whether the impairment limits one or more major life activities, such as walking, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and/or working. The ADA defines a disability as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity; a record of such impairment; or being regarded as having such impairment.” The ADA covers obvious impairments such as difficulty in seeing, hearing, or learning, as well as less obvious impairments such as alcoholism, epilepsy, paralysis, mental retardation, and contagious and noncontagious diseases, specifically Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

The difference between the two laws, as they apply to educational institutions, is that Section 504 applies to the recipients of grant monies from the federal government, while Title II of the ADA applies only to public entities, with some applications to private sector entities. These entities include nursery, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate schools, or other places of education, day care centers, and gymnasiums or other places of exercise or recreation.

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