Section 504 and Rights of Prisoners

Fact Sheet

What is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973?

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504)1 is a federal law that makes it unlawful for any program or activity that gets federal money to discriminate because of a person’s disability. The SC Department of Corrections (SCDC) is covered by this law.

Section 504 also states that a person with a disability, if qualified for a service or benefit should be given reasonable accommodations so he or she can get that service or benefit. However, if SCDC can show that making the change in procedures would impose an undue hardship on the prison, it does not have to give the accommodation.

Section 504 Definitions:

Person with a Disability: Any person who:

• Has a physical or mental impairment2 which substantially limits one or more major life activities,3
• Has a record of such an impairment, or
• Is regarded as having such impairment.

Qualified Person with a Disability:

A person with a disability who meets the basic eligibility requirements for a program or service. Before you have a right to ask for an accommodation because of your disability, you need to meet the general requirements for the program or service you want.

Reasonable Accommodation:

A change that allows someone with a disability to fully participate in the program or activity. If you are in a training program, but have trouble reading because of poor eyesight, an accommodation might be getting you books with big print or having someone read the book to you.

Undue Hardship:

This is determined on a case-by-case basis based on three factors:

How does Section 504 protect a prisoner against disability discrimination?

Section 504 makes it unlawful to discriminate against inmates with disabilities. This includes inmates who use wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, or other mobility devices. It also includes inmates who have mental health or cognitive disabilities. All parts of law enforcement and correctional services are covered by 504 including prison facilities, employment, transportation, and other activities, programs, and services.

Does Section 504 guarantee that I’ll receive health and mental health care?

If I think I have been discriminated against because of my disability, what can I do?

As a prisoner, you have three choices:

1. File an inmate grievance according to the inmate policies and procedures. There is usually a special form for this and you receive instructions when you are admitted to
prison. SCDC has a grievance procedure: SCDC Policy GA-01.12, Inmate Grievance System. A copy of this policy is available in the Inmate Law Library at each institution. If you need help filing your grievance contact your Institutional Grievance Coordinator (IGC).

2. File a complaint with the SCDC 504 coordinator. This is the SCDC employee who makes sure SCDC follows the 504 law. You may write a short note or letter to the 504
coordinator. The 504 coordinator must give you a prompt and fair answer to your complaint.

SCDC Headquarters
PO Box 21787
Columbia, SC 29221-1787

3. File a complaint with the United States Department of Justice (DOJ).
Office of Justice Programs
Office for Civil Rights
U.S. Department of Justice
810 7th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20531

The DOJ Complaint Form is attached to this Fact Sheet. It is also available at

This publication provides legal information, but is not intended to be legal advice. The information was based on the law at the time it was written. As the law may change, please contact P&A for updates.

This publication is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the Health Resources and Services Administration, and the US Department of Education (Rehabilitative Services

P&A does not discriminate on the basis of disability, race, color, creed, national origin, ethnicity, ancestry, citizenship, age, religion, sex or sexual orientation, veteran status, or any other class protected by law in the provision of its programs or services. Pete Cantrell is P&A’s designated coordinator for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. General June 2015

1 29 U.S. Code § 794.
2 “Impairments” may include hearing and vision problems, mental illness, intellectual disability, and other disabilities.
3 “Major Life Activities” may include (but are not limited to) seeing, hearing, working, walking, breathing, speaking, and learning.

4 “Undue Hardship” may result from accommodations that are excessively expensive, excessively time-consuming, or create
security or safety risks in the prison.

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