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What is the Difference between an IEP and Section 504 Plan?

Amy Scott Lorton

A: This is a question that I am asked frequently. While there are similarities between a 504 Plan and IEPs, each have different provisions. For students with disabilities there are two federal laws that protect and guarantee their rights: Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA 2004, originally enacted in 1975) which regulates IEPs and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (504). Both laws provide students with disabilities a Free Appropriate Education (FAPE)-see definitions below.

At a Glance: A Section 504 Plan is intended for students with disabilities who are, with specific accommodations, able to benefit from participating in a general education classroom. An IEP, on the other hand, is intended for students with specific disabilities who require special instruction and services (special education). An IEP will include specialized instruction and services and may include modifications (changes to the curriculum), where a 504 Plan includes accommodations but does not make changes to the general education curriculum.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between the two:

An IEP is an Individualized Education Program that is required for eligible individuals whose disability adversely affects their educational performance and/or ability to benefit from general education. Students who qualify for an IEP under IDEA receive differentiated instruction and services known as special education- which is defined as specifically designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including special instruction delivered in the classroom, at home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings. Students who have an IEP have the right to a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) according to their unique needs. IDEA defines FAPE as, "an educational program that is individualized to a specific child, that meets that child's unique needs, provides access to the general curriculum, meets the grade-level standards established by the state, and from which the child receives educational benefit."

Who is eligible? Under IDEA an eligible student is one who has one or more of the 13 categorized disabilities as defined by law such as: Specific Learning Disability (SLD), Other Health Impairment (OHI), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), emotional disturbance, speech or language impairment, visual impairment- including blindness, deafness, hearing impairment, deaf-blindness, orthopedic impairment, intellectual disability, traumatic brain injury, or multiple disabilities.

What is included in an IEP? An IEP describes special instruction and services that a student will receive and must include: the student’s disability, the student’s present levels of academic and functional performance, services and supplemental aids the school will provide, goals and objectives and how they will be measured, accommodations and modifications (changes to the curriculum), where the student’s learning will take place and how much time the student will be included with non-disabled peers, transition planning for older students, a behavior intervention plan to address any significant behaviors, and how the student will participate in standardized testing. The student’s needs may be addressed in the general education setting, in a specialized setting, or a combination of settings. Evaluations are conducted to determine eligibility and reevaluations must be conducted every three years. The IEP is developed by a team, which includes the parent and student, and is reviewed annually.

A Section 504 Plan is a plan required for eligible students with disabilities or impairments detailing services and accommodations necessary to access everything that non-disabled students can, including general education curriculum. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, individuals are protected from discrimination in educational settings based solely on their disability and have the right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Section 504 defines FAPE as, “the provision of regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet individual needs of handicapped persons as adequately as the needs of nonhandicapped persons are met and are based on adherence to procedures that satisfy the requirements of (the section).” Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs run by federal agencies; programs that receive federal financial assistance; in federal employment; and in the employment practices of federal contractors. Students with disabilities who attend public colleges and universities are protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Who is eligible? An eligible individual is one who has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activity such as learning, speaking, walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, working, self-care, or performing manual tasks; or has record of an impairment; or is regarded as having an impairment.

What’s included in a 504 Plan? Generally, a Section 504 Plan includes: the student’s disability or impairment, specific accommodations, and services and supplemental aids the school will provide to allow the student to participate in the general curriculum. Unlike an IEP, specialized instruction and services, and modifications (changes to the curriculum) are not included. Accommodations do not change the curriculum the student receives. Examples may include extra time allowed for assignments and testing, frequent breaks, training for staff, and special seating arrangements. No formal school evaluations are required, but parental consent is needed if one is conducted. Information must be considered from a variety of sources such as a doctor’s recommendation, documentation from qualified professionals, and discussion with parents. The plan is developed by the team or committee, which includes the parent and student, and is reviewed as needed.

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