the difference between an IEP and a 504 PLan: A Super Mini Legal course

One of the most common questions parents have is what’s the difference between an IEP and a 504 Plan. That’s for good reason because there are a lot of similarities.  They’re both legally enforceable documents.  They’re both to assist special needs children in schools.  They’re both developed by a team of the parent, teacher(s) and other personnel at a school meeting.  But there are a lot of complex differences.  Here’s a super mini legal course in the difference between a 504 Plan and an IEP.  

The Difference Between an IEP and a 504 Plan

An IEP comes from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (known as the “IDEA”) and gives very detailed and specific rights to K-12 public school students with disabilities.  An IEP entitles your child to specialized instruction in many domains of school life, such as behavior, social skills, academics and health.  The IDEA also gives services in school, such as SLT and OT.  A Section 504 Plan comes from an entirely different law called Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which covers many parts of life, not just the school life of disabled students.  

I think it will help to understand the difference between a 504 Plan and an IEP if you understand that Section 504 is a kind of precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Almost everyone’s heard of the ADA which provides rights to people with disabilities in almost all aspects of life.  People know it as the law which mandates public wheelchair ramps and accessible bathrooms in hotels, etc.  Think of Section 504 similarly.  It gives rights to individuals with disabilities in many, many aspects of life.  And only a sliver of the Section 504 law applies to special needs children in schools.  Whereas, the entire IDEA is devoted to special needs kids in public school.  So the rights a disabled child gets under a 504 Plan area A LOT less detailed than the rights given in an IEP.  

To make it simple, Section 504 comes into play if your disabled child needs only accommodations, but not the instruction and services they’d get in an IEP.  You get the accommodations of a 504 Plan so that your child can “compete” on a level playing field with their peers.  On the other hand, to be eligible for an IEP, your child generally needs to be performing very poorly academically, socially or behaviorally.   But poor academics or behaviors are not necessary to get a 504 Plan.  

What Are Accommodations?

The next logical question is ‘what are the accommodations?’  One key way schools can help disabled children participate fully in school is by providing “reasonable” accommodations.  An accommodation is an individualized adjustment to the educational system which makes the system fair for a child with a disability.   Section 504 and an IEP can both give a student accommodations, such as extended time testing, a wheelchair ramp or verbal prompts to pay attention.  

Who Can Get Accommodations Under a 504 Plan?

In 2008 by some miracle the likes of which I cannot explain, Congress amended the ADA (and Section 504) and broadened the definition of “disabled.”  In other words, students who in the past may not have been considered disabled under Section 504 and the ADA, now are considered disabled.  For more on this see the Questions and Answers doc from the U.S. Department of Ed. 

If you’re a determined advocate for your disabled child who, for whatever reason, has had the IEP door slammed in your face, there’s two main situations when you can use a 504 Plan to your child’s benefit.  First, obviously if your child is physically or medically disabled, you can still use it to get accommodations to the facilities or a 1:1 aide, for instance, to ensure they have access to the school and are safe from injury.  Second, if your child is high-achieving in some areas and disabled, you can use a 504 Plan to obtain certain accommodations, such as extended time, alerts before transitions to new activities, or guidance on appropriate social skills.  

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