Education and Disability: Understanding the Differences Between the IEP and the 504

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At Kid’s Creek Therapy, we pride ourselves on not just treating children, but being a resource for parents of our patients. One question that we commonly receive relates to school – in particular, what are IEPs and 504 plans, what are the differences between them, and how to know which one is best. We hope that today’s blog post by our friend Andi Sligh, mom of two children with special needs, will clear up some of the confusion.

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I’ve been a special needs mom for thirteen years – my daughter was born premature with spastic diplegia cerebral palsy, and my son with Down syndrome. As a result, I’ve spent many hours of my life in meetings to discuss IEPs and 504 Plans. While I’m no expert in the intricacies of disability law and education, what I do have is a wealth of experience in the real-world application of it, and I hope that my overview will help guide you as you make educational decisions for your own child.

What is an IEP, and what is its purpose?

The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) sprung from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), first passed in the 1970s. The purpose of this federal legislation is to guarantee a free and appropriate public education for children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, and covers children up to age 21. It is overseen by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services of the U.S. Department of Education.

What is a 504 Plan, and what is its purpose?

504 Plans have their roots in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and are intended to prevent individuals from being excluded from participation in programs that receive federal funding (including, but not limited to, public schools). Section 504 is also overseen by the U.S Department of Education, but by the Office of Civil Rights, as its primary aim is not education, but access (i.e., non-discrimination).

How is an IEP different from a 504 Plan?

Both the IEP and 504 Plan provide services at no cost to parents, but an IEP provides more protections and a more comprehensive educational plan. It includes not only descriptions of the services provided, but also sets individual learning goals for the child. IEPs are created by a team of people which must include the child’s parent, general education teacher, special education teacher, school psychologist or other specialist who can interpret evaluation results, and an individual with authority over special education services.

Children with autism, hearing and/or visual impairment, emotional disturbance, intellectual disability, orthopedic impairment, ADHD, learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, or other (or multiple) disabilities may be eligible for an IEP. However, in order to qualify for an IEP, a child must not only have a disability, but that disability must affect the child’s educational performance and/or ability to learn.

Many children who do not qualify for an IEP may qualify for a 504 Plan. To qualify for a 504 Plan, a child must have a disability and the disability must interfere with the child’s ability to learn in the general education setting. Those criteria sound similar to those for an IEP, but the Section 504’s focus is on equal access to education, not the child’s educational performance. Examples of 504 Plan accommodations may include things like extra time to complete tests or assignments, verbal, visual, or technology aids, modified class materials, adjusted class schedules, nonstandard testing formats (such as verbal or typing in lieu of handwritten), occupational or physical therapy, or other exceptions to school policies that would be a hindrance to access for the child.

How do I know which option is best for my child?

For some children with disabilities, a 504 Plan is adequate to meet his or her needs. For example, my daughter who is in middle school has cerebral palsy and struggles to navigate the building, but not in academics, and she has been well served for several years by a 504 Plan. Simple accommodations, such as allowing her to use the teachers-only elevator, cut through the cafeteria to get to class, and not “dress out” for P.E. (options that are not available to most students) are all that she has needed to access the general curriculum at her middle school. In addition to these and other accommodations, she’s also been able to receive physical therapy and adapted physical education services at school.

For children with a disability which is cognitive, emotional, intellectual, or developmental, however, the accommodations afforded by 504 Plans are often inadequate to meet their needs. These children often need modifications to the general curriculum or specially designed instruction in order to progress, which is only available as part of an IEP. My son, who has Down syndrome, is part of a mainstream class at his elementary school, but because he struggles with certain concepts (math is too abstract and his handwriting is atrocious!), he receives extra help. A portion of his day is spent with a special education teacher and he is assigned an aide for assistance in the general classroom. He would not be well served by a 504 Plan.

In layman’s terms, a 504 plan may provide special services, but doesn’t have the legal “teeth” of an IEP and doesn’t address goals and objectives for the student’s education. In contrast, a 504 plan simply provides accommodations or services to prevent the disability from being a barrier to the child’s education.

It’s tempting as a parent of a child with a disability to decide “IEP or Bust!” – more is better, right? Not necessarily. Five years ago, when my daughter’s school first suggested that she move from an IEP to a 504 Plan, I was skeptical. Public schools have limited resources, and my first thought was that they were trying to take something away from my child. It didn’t take long for me to realize, though, that she really didn’t need an IEP, and we’ve never looked back.

In short, I can’t tell you which option is best for your child – you know your child best. Carefully consider what your child needs, do research so that you know what your rights are, and ask your child’s school for an evaluation of your child and to partner with you to come up with a plan. In my experience, educators want to do all that they can for the children they serve, but sometimes financial or political pressures and even simple misunderstandings can derail the best of intentions. “Trust but verify” is the best advice I can give you.

Good luck!

Andi Sligh, BringingtheSunshine.com

More resources on IEPs, 504 Plans, and some advice for meetings with your child’s school:

The Difference Between IEPs and 504 Plans
Top 5 Differences and Similarities Between Section 504 and IDEA
Four Tips for Surviving Your Child’s IEP Meeting
IEP Meetings: Consider Your Flight Plan
A Guide to the Individualized Education Program
Protecting Students With Disabilities: FAQs About Section 504

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About the Photo: Exterior view of the Upjohn School, Kalamazoo Public School system, 1936-1941. Picture shows five students, one in a wheelchair, one with a leg brace, outside a rear school entrance. Prior to passage of IDEA in the 1970s, public schools were not required by law to educate or accommodate children with disabilities. Courtesy of Kalamazoo Public Library.

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