a child in school writes in his notebook.

Laws that Help Kids Navigate School and Cancer

Whether you’re ready or not, back-to-school season is upon us, and for some, that means having to navigate school and cancer. The information outlined in this blog is helpful to parents and children alike, from K-12 through graduate school.

Navigating school and cancer means different things for different people. Some students with cancer may need to take time off of, or delay entering, school. They may experience cancer-related medical and nonmedical complications while attending school during treatment or returning to school after treatment.

It is important to know that there are laws that help protect students with cancer. While many people do not consider it to be a disability, under some laws, cancer does in fact qualify as a disability.

Laws to Help People Navigate School and Cancer

There are three laws in particular that are useful to know about related to education rights.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): For K-12

The IDEA is a federal law that governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education programs, and other services to students with disabilities. The IDEA requires a free, appropriate public education be available to meet the unique needs of eligible students with disabilities, including special education and related services. 

IDEA applies to students from 3-21 years old (kindergarten through 12th grade). This allows for a student who is slightly older to have enough time to complete the 12th grade. This is useful for childhood cancer survivors who may need to miss school for longer periods of time.

Students must also have one of 13 listed disabilities. Common cancer-related conditions on this list include: specific learning disabilities, traumatic brain injury, or other health impairments. For more information about the IDEA, visit sites.ed.gov/idea.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act: For K-Graduate School

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a federal law that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that school districts provide a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) to eligible students in their jurisdictions. 

It applies to:

  • All kindergarten through 12th-grade schools, including all public schools (including charter/magnet schools)
  • All colleges, universities, or graduate schools that receive federal funding. Section 504 not only applies to public schools, but also applies to most private colleges and universities because they receive federal financial assistance by participating in federal student aid programs.
  • Students who:
    • have “physical or mental impairments, which substantially limit one or more major life activities”
    • have a “record of such impairment”
    • are “perceived as having such impairment” 

A “Major Life Activity” under the Rehabilitation Act is an activity that an average person can perform with little or no difficulty. Some examples include, but are not limited to: walking, seeing, speaking, hearing, breathing, learning, caring for oneself, concentrating, sleeping, and the operation of major bodily functions. Under Section 504, eligible students are entitled to receive a “504 plan” in writing, which is a plan that is created by the school to help students with disabilities overcome any challenges posed by their medical condition in a learning environment.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): For K-Graduate School

The ADA is a federal law that prohibits discrimination in the workplace, transportation, communication, government, and public accommodations for people with disabilities. 

Specifically, Title II of the ADA prohibits state and local governments from discriminating against individuals with disabilities in all state and local government services, programs, and activities. This includes state-funded public schools, colleges, universities, and vocational schools. The ADA applies to students who:  

  • have “physical or mental impairments, which substantially limit one or more major life activities”
  • have a “record of such impairment”
  • are “perceived as having such impairment” 

Under the ADA, eligible students are entitled to receive accommodations to overcome any challenges posed by their medical condition in a learning environment. In addition to education rights, Title I of the ADA also provides protections in the employment arena. 

As adolescents and young adults begin to seek jobs and pursue their career goals, the ADA can provide protection against discrimination and access to reasonable accommodations in the workplace.

What Are Reasonable Accommodations?

Reasonable accommodations are any changes that help a student overcome challenges associated with their medical condition while getting an education. For example, once a student receives treatment for a cancer diagnosis, they may face side effects that could pose both medical and nonmedical complications related to education. 

Cancer treatment may pose challenges with:

  • Attention/ability span
  • Ability to complete tasks on time
  • Concentration
  • Memory
  • Organization
  • Handwriting
  • Planning
  • Problem-solving
  • Processing
  • Reading & Math
  • Social skills
  • Spelling & Vocabulary

For examples of reasonable accommodations that can be requested, see our Quick Guide to Education Rights & Financial Help.

You Know the Laws, Now What?

It is important to note that in order to be protected by these laws, students must meet certain eligibility rules, and each law’s rules are different. These laws are in place to help protect students against discrimination, to provide access to reasonable accommodations, and ultimately, to ensure that students with disabilities have access to equal educational opportunities. 

In addition to federal laws that protect students with disabilities, there may also be state laws that provide protections and benefits.

For more information on navigating school and cancer, watch our Webinar on Managing Side Effects at Work and in School, and download A Practical Guide to Cancer Rights for Young Adults.

About Triage Cancer

Triage Cancer is a national, nonprofit providing free education to people diagnosed with cancer, caregivers, and health care professionals on cancer-related legal and practical issues. Through eventsmaterials, and resources, Triage Cancer is dedicated to helping people move beyond diagnosis.

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