When parents of special needs students are searching for the best support services available to their child, the most common question they ask me is about the difference between a 504 Plan and an IEP. While both offer protections to people with disabilities, they are quite different in their eligibility, scope, and services and supports. Understanding these differences is the key to figuring out which plan is right for your child.
Using a student with ADHD as an example, here’s how I would approach the decision:
Eligibility under Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is contingent upon a child having a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits at least one major life activity. In order to be eligible for a 504 Plan, you need to prove that the student has a disability and that it adversely affects them in school. In the case of ADHD, that can be the ability to concentrate and remain focused.
Alternatively, the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) serves students with disabilities through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). A student not only needs to meet eligibility criteria, but also requires special education services in order to access the curriculum. So in addition to a doctor’s diagnosis, it needs to be proven that the disability manifests in a way that directly impacts the student’s education. Continuing my example of a student with ADHD, in order to qualify for an IEP (under the category Other Health Impaired (OHI)) the student would require special education services, not just accommodations. Two examples of such services are time in a resource room or a classroom aide to help keep him on task.
Both a 504 and an IEP can serve our student with ADHD, but which one his parents pursue should depend on how much his disability impacts him academically. While some parents fear that a child who qualifies for special education under an IEP will be removed from the general classroom environment, and placed in a special education class, this is not the case. Special education is a service not a location, and because every child has the right to be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), they should be included with their peers to the maximum extent possible.
Services & Supports
A 504 Plan is meant to level the playing field and offer an education that is comparable to their non-disabled peers. It does so through accommodations made for the child in the classroom environment, aimed at reducing or eliminating challenges that may impede learning. An IEP may contain the same accommodations, in addition to special education services such as occupational or speech therapies, etc.
Some examples of accommodations a student with ADHD might receive with either 504 or IEP are:
- Additional time for tests
- Separate location for tests
- Notes provided by teacher or peer
- Preferential seating
- Shortened or modified assignments
The tables below are meant to further aid in your comparison of 504 plans versus IEPs. If you have anything to add, please specify your Pros and Cons by leaving a comment at the end of this blog.
504 PLAN: PROS
504 PLAN: CONS
|Easier to get than an IEP—shorter process||School does not have to invite parent to development meeting|
|Least restrictive environment for your child||Can be changed without parent permission|
|Follows a student after they leave high school||Fewer legal protections to ensure plan is followed|
|Only covers accommodations—fewer services than an IEP|
|Includes a thorough evaluation that is free to the parent||Some stigma attached to special education|
|Wide range of services and accommodations||Long and potentially contentious process to become eligible|
|Parents are equal members of the IEP team||Ends when the student finishes high school|
|Includes Procedural Safeguards which offer many parent rights|