Whether your child is newly diagnosed or about to enter school, it is important to know how to obtain the educational assistance she may need.

Children have rights that guarantee that arthritis will not interfere with their access to an education. These educational rights are rooted in two federal laws that bar discrimination for children with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) both protect children against educational discrimination because of their disabilities.

At the core of these legal protections is a formal written plan prescribed by an educational team that addresses the individual child’s needs – either a 504 plan or an Individual Educational Plan (IEP). The severity of the disability and the extent of the adjustments needed dictate which plan is used. Once the child’s eligibility is determined, a plan is created by an educational team that includes school personnel, the parents and sometimes a medical representative. The plan lists the accommodations or modifications that the school is bound to provide for the student.  Plans are reviewed annually.

While both laws provide protections for students with disabilities the two types of plans vary in both eligibility and in protections afforded to the student.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

IDEA dictates how states and school systems provide early intervention, special education and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers and children with disabilities. Children with arthritis may qualify for special educational services through IDEA under the “other health impaired” provisions. The child must have a demonstrated special need that causes a disability that adversely affects her educational performance. Children who need special educational services, significant assistance and modifications to the standard curriculum are covered by IDEA.

Children under age three may qualify for early intervention services under Part C of IDEA. Children ages 3 to 21 receive special education and related services through public school systems under Part B of IDEA. An Individual Education plan (IEP) is the cornerstone of IDEA protection.  The IEP explicitly spells out the individualized services the school will provide to the child and defines customized educational goals and how they will be measured.

Section 504

Not all students who have disabilities require specialized instruction to successfully complete standard coursework.  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a federal civil rights law that requires school districts to provide qualified disabled students "reasonable accommodations" necessary to ensure access to all public school programs and activities. Accommodations merely level the playing field and allow the child to overcome their disability to meet the same standards as the rest of the students. Such accommodations may include a change in scheduling of classes, modified materials, alternative seating arrangements or an altered method of student response including access to a computer or oral responses.