Prong One: Current Impairment

To be considered disabled under Prong One, the student must currently have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities or major bodily functions. Finding a disability under Prong One requires careful analysis of: 1) the physical or mental impairment; 2) the major life activity or bodily function impacted; and, 3) the degree to which the impairment limits the activity. Students described in Prong One are protected from discrimination under Section 504 and may be entitled to FAPE via a Section 504 Plan if determined necessary by the Section 504 team.

Physical or Mental Impairment

The Section 504 regulations provide a broad definition of the “physical or mental impairment.”

Physical or mental impairment means (A) any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive, digestive, genito/urinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine; or (B) any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities (34 CFR §104.3(j)(2)).

Age and conditions resulting only from cultural or economic factors are not considered disabilities under Section 504.

Major Life Activities

Section 504’s definition of disability requires a team to look at the impact of the physical or mental impairment on one or more major life activities. The list of major life activities includes, but is not limited to, the following:

• Caring for oneself • Breathing
• Walking • Learning
• Seeing • Working
• Hearing • Performing manual tasks
• Speaking • Reading
• Eating • Concentrating
• Standing • Thinking
• Lifting • Sleeping
• Bending


The italicized major life activities above were specifically added to the list as a result of changes made by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act of 2008 (ADAAA). It is important to note that ADAAA additions to major life activities could likely result in more students technically meeting the definition of disability under Section 504. For example, a student with dyslexia who is able to learn (due to compensatory skills and extra work) may not have been viewed as disabled prior to the ADAAA; but after the ADAAA, may be substantially limited in her ability to read (as opposed to her ability to learn).

Section 504 teams cannot limit their analysis of whether a student has a disability to a review of the impairment’s impact on the major life activity of learning (one of multiple major life activities identified by Congress) to the exclusion of other major life activities or bodily functions. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has consistently found Section 504 violations when schools limit their determination of disability to whether the student is substantially limited in the ability to learn. All major life activities must be considered in determining whether a disability exists.

Major Bodily Functions

In the definition section of the ADAAA, Congress provided that “a major life activity also includes the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.”

One of the problems encountered in making a disability determination is identifying the major life activity or major bodily function the impair­ment impacts. To ease the burden and make the analysis more disability-friendly, it is helpful to identify major bodily functions. For some impairments, like diabetes, the addition of major bodily functions (specifically, the endocrine function) makes tying the impairment to a major life activity obvious.

When determining whether a disability exists, schools that merely look to major life activities, while ignoring major bodily functions do so at their own peril. For example, OCR found a school’s Section 504 evaluation for a student with irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive complaints in violation of law when the district improperly concluded that the student was not eligible due to good grades, failing to consider the impact on the major life activity of digestive function (55 IDELR 21, 2009). Again, that district limited its consideration of whether a disability existed to the major life activity of learning.

Substantial Limitation

In order to be considered disabled under Prong One, the physical or mental impairment must also be found to “substantially limit” a major life activity or bodily function. Section 504 does not currently provide an operational definition of “substantial limitation.” Instead, the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) has concluded that each Local Education Agency (LEA) should make its own determination of what the phrase “substantial limitation” means.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) created a definition of “substantial limitation” for use in employment cases that is sometimes used by schools in making Section 504 disability determinations. Current EEOC regulations have been put into place as follows: (i) the term “substantially limits” shall be construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage, to the maximum extent permitted under the terms of the ADA.  “Substantially limits” is not meant to be a demanding standard. (ii) An impairment is a disability within the meaning of this section if it substantially limits the ability of an individual to perform a major life activity as compared to most people in the general population.  An impairment need not prevent, or significantly or severely restrict, the individual from performing a major life activity in order to be considered substantially limiting.  Nonetheless, not every impairment will constitute a disability within the meaning of this section (29 CFR § 1630.2(j)(1)). 

Based upon this analogous language, determining whether a student has a “substantial limitation” in a major life activity could be based upon a comparison of how that particular student performs a major life activity at issue as compared to “most people” in the general population.  While this new regulation may be useful, schools still have the discretion to define the meaning of “substantial limitation” when determining whether a student has a disability.

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MYTH: Section 504 provides more than the IDEA in terms of coverage and protection in the educational environment.

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