Section 504

Navigating the implementation and stigma of 504 plans

*Rowan is anonymous in order to protect their identity. 

The 504 plan is a law within the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states that individuals who are clinically or medically diagnosed with a disability that impairs their academic success are entitled to “reasonable accommodations” — extra time on tests, the option to take an assessment in a separate setting and project extensions are some of the more common. 

According to MVHS school psychologist Sheila Altmann, the 504 plan is administered by the Student Assistant Team — a group of faculty who meet and discuss students experiencing academic or emotional difficulties. The 504 plan is installed to “level the playing field” and grant said students the same access to resources that most students have.

Diagnosed with ADHD in second grade, junior Bailey Kinnet turned to the 504 plan after struggling with geometry and biology during her freshman year. Kinnet’s family believed that applying for a 504 plan would be beneficial, as Kinnet has trouble paying attention in class. 

Kinnet’s 504 plan entails taking tests alone in a different setting coupled with extended test time. Kinnet says that because she applied for the plan, she passed her freshmen classes and has been performing well in her sophomore and junior year, as she received the accommodations she needed. 

“Sometimes if I … tell myself I can take [a test] in the class and not outside of the class, I struggle with looking around and seeing other kids finish their test before I do,” Kinnet said. “And so it causes me to rush through my test faster than I would if I was alone in my own separate setting with no noises or distractions. That’s an incident that has been hard for me … [which is] one of the main reasons why I like my 504 plan so much. It’s because I don’t have to go through that whole thing.”

Kinnet was initially “hesitant” about applying for a 504 plan, as she didn’t want her peers to think of her as “stupid,” make fun of her or think any less of her. Ultimately, Kinnet deduced that she needed a 504 plan, as she knew that the academic assistance the plan offers would benefit her in the long run. 

Kinnet believes that students with 504 plans need a “little extra help” with academic management to be able to achieve the same results as students without a 504. However, individuals who aren’t educated on what a 504 plan serves to accomplish may inaccurately frame misconceptions regarding the usage of the plan. With this, Kinnet notes that she feels there is a particular stigma attached to receiving a 504 plan in the MVHS community. 

Though the 504 plan brings benefits for individuals who need the aid, Altmann notes that the stigmatization of the 504 plan is “felt commonly,” as adolescents are “very conscious” of peer preconceptions. According to Altmann, students who use a 504 plan are wary of what kind of image or misconception will be placed on them. 

Kinnet attributes this sentiment to the rigorous academic MVHS culture, as she believes there is a correlation between a student’s ability to finish a test efficiently and their intellect. Rowan*, a student clinically diagnosed with ADHD who receives extended test time, agrees with this sentiment. 

“We’re all in MVHS, so we all don’t want to fall behind or lax or feel incompetent,” Rowan said. “So me … and at least the people I know, we try not to use [504 plans] because then we’ll start to feel like, ‘Oh, we’re falling behind these other kids.’ But still, it comes to times where I need to use it, so I just talk with my teacher.”

I think we’re all so wrapped up in our own, like selves that we tend to hold ourselves back in fear of what other people will think when in reality, no one cares. When I take tests in the office, nobody notices nobody really [says], ‘oh my god, I can’t believe you’re taking a test in the office. How dare you.’ I think people need to realize that being self conscious, like this really is just holding yourself back.”

— Sophomore Nivedita Menon

To combat this sentiment, Altmann and the Student Assistant Team attempt to preserve confidentiality of students who receive help from a 504 plan by ensuring that the plan’s tailored aid is implemented “in a very discreet way.” According to Altmann, the purpose of a 504 plan is not to make exams and assignments easier for students, but to allow students to complete their curriculum on the same level as other students. With this, Altmann acknowledges that such a distinction is not a detriment. 

“Difference isn’t necessarily a bad thing — sometimes it’s what enriches our lives, to have a difference or to overcome and persevere in spite of differences that might make it more challenging,” Altmann said. 

Sophomore Nivedita Menon, who has a 504 plan for depression and anxiety, believes that there is “obviously” a form of stigma surrounding students who use 504 plans, saying, “the idea is, ‘are you too weak to handle the stress? Everyone else can do it — why can’t you?’” Menon believes that, though present, this stigma is subtle and underlying. 

“I feel no one has ever, and probably no one will ever outright say that to my face,” Menon said. But there is the idea of, ‘Why did you leave class when we were going to take that test?’ or ‘How come you didn’t have to turn that thing in when everyone else did?’”

“I think we’re all so wrapped up in our own, like selves that we tend to hold ourselves back in fear of what other people will think when in reality, no one cares. When I take tests in the office, nobody notices nobody really [says], ‘oh my god, I can’t believe you’re taking a test in the office. How dare you.’ I think people need to realize that being self conscious, like this really is just holding yourself back.”

Amid this supposed stigma, Altmann acknowledges that the mandate of 504 plans intends to “prevent discrimination” by guaranteeing “specialized needs” students to equal access. Students with a 504 plan are granted fair accessibility to what’s available in the general curriculum to meet graduation requirements and graduate on time alongside their peers. 

“I also try to get [students] to have the perspective that … even wearing glasses was something that you might be made fun of,” Altmann said. “And so people didn’t want to wear glasses. But if you need glasses, you need glasses. And, you know, it’s sometimes it’s like, if you have a problem with it, well, that’s your problem, but I need to do what’s in my own best interest.”

Being comfortable with using her 504 plan herself, Menon agrees, noting that not using a given 504 plan is a self detriment.

“I think we’re all so wrapped up in our own, like selves that we tend to hold ourselves back in fear of what other people will think when in reality, no one cares,” Menon said. “When I take tests in the office, nobody notices nobody really [says], ‘oh my god, I can’t believe you’re taking a test in the office. How dare you.’ I think people need to realize that being self conscious like this really is just holding yourself back.”