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What are the Legal Rights of Caregivers and Their Children with ADHD (USA)?

Margaret V. Austin, Ph.D., edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

In the United States, there are two federal laws that establish the rights of students with ADHD. Some states have additional laws that pertain to students with disabilities. However, unless the state law provides more protection or rights than the federal laws, the federal law must be followed. These two laws are:

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; and,
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act - 2004 (IDEA)

scales of justiceThe rights of children with ADHD within the school system are addressed by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This civil rights law sought to end various forms of discrimination against disabled persons. Under Section 504, children with disabilities have the right to access and fully participate in a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). These rights stand regardless of the type or severity of the disability.

Section 504 requires schools to provide appropriate educational services to disabled students. They must be of the same standard quality as educational services provided to students without a disability. To qualify under Section 504, students must have:

1) A documented mental or physical disability, or one that is readily apparent;
2) The disability severely impairs their daily functioning; and,
3) The disability must include dysfunction in learning and behavior.

Once a student meets these requirements, the law requires the school to provide accommodations and modifications that enable the student to participate in an educational setting. Many students with ADHD qualify for services under this law. If a student qualifies, these additional services can be quite helpful in furthering the child's education.

Another law that may benefit children with ADHD is called Individuals with Disabilities Education Act - 2004 (IDEA). IDEA is an educational benefit law that offers additional services and protections to students with disabilities. Unlike Section 504 that seeks parity between abled and disabled, the IDEA offers extra benefits not available to non-disabled students. IDEA definition of a disability is stricter than Section 504. It provides a list of 13 qualifying conditions. Students must fall under one of the 13 qualifying conditions and need special education before they are eligible for any services under this law. Students covered by IDEA must be provided an Individual Educational Plan (IEP). The IEP is designed to meet each student's specific needs. It must result in an educational benefit to the student. IDEA establishes the rights of children with special needs to receive additional educational services so that they can make academic progress. Services must always be provided in the least restrictive environment possible. These services are paid by the public through taxes.

Because these two laws have different requirements and provisions, caregivers must determine which legal avenue offers the best option for their child. Caregivers must consider the individual needs and challenges of their child. Children who are likely to do well with little aid, are probably best be served by Section 504, which can be accessed more quickly. Students who need a broader range, of more intense services, might be better served under IDEA. Caregivers can consult with the child's health and educational team to evaluate their choices.