Updated: Oct 1, 2021
When a school aged child (any student between pre school and grade 12) is diagnosed with a physical, academic or mental health need, accommodations and modifications are the tools that schools use to provide a free and appropriate education. The Individual Education Plan (referred to as an IEP) or the Section 504 plan (referred to in this article as 504) are means to document accommodations/modifications for your child. These are legally binding documents that provide the school team and your family with a plan of action, and a roadmap for how to implement your child's educational program. While it is common to see these plans as very similar, there are some unique differences. The following list will provide you with an understanding of how the two are similar and how they are different.
Both the IEP and the 504 were put into place by the federal government. The 504 plan came about as a result of the Civil Rights Act, and its' intent is to enable students with a medical diagnoses to the same access to the curriculum as their typical peers. In contrast, the IEP is the result of the Individual with Disabiltie's Act (IDEA), and its' intent is to address the needs of students who have a diagnosed disability that impacts their learning.
Both plans are legal documents but the 504 plan remains with a person for life, should they choose to utilize it beyond their high school experience. The IEP is available to children from birth through age 21. Please see #10 in this article for more information about this.
Parents are required to be a part of the IEP planning team. The 504 does not require that the parents help develop or monitor it. However, in both cases, permission must be granted by parents in order for a child to receive either plan. Please see #8 in this article for more on this topic.
The 504 plan does not include goals, and therefore, there is no monitoring of goals, unless the team creating the plan requests that it is part of the plan. In the same vein, there is no annual review required though it is best practice to review the plan annually in order to insure that all involved staff who work with your child are clear on the plan and how to implement. In contrast, in order to have an IEP, goals are required in order to meet the individual needs of your child. Since the goals are intended to help your child make improvements in their areas of challenge, they are progress monitored each quarter and your child's progress is shared with you, the parent, This information about your child may be shared in a face to face or virtual parent conference, or mailed to you, as they are documented in the quarterly summaries and progress monitoring notes section of the IEP.
The 504 plan does not include changes to the curriculum, only modified assignments. For example, a child with a vision impairment is expected to participate in class but the materials he uses to access the curriculum may be enlarged, or braille reading materials may be utilized, in order for the child to have access to what typical students are provided. The IEP may include modifications to assignments as well as an altered curriculum. For example, if a child is reading below grade level, the reading materials she is provided may be changed from what her peers are reading. Since the IEP addresses the skill deficits a child has due to the disability, modifications to the curriculum are to be expected in order for the child to have assistance and practice with areas in which she is not yet successful.
A student with a 504 is not eligible to receive additional school-related services, such as speech therapy or occupational therapy. An IEP, in comparison, does allow for additional services so long as your child exhibits a deficit in that area, and you agree that you would like your child to receive these services.
The 504 plan is not required to be documented whereas by law, the IEP is required to be documented, and reviewed annually. Therefore, if a 504 plan is not reviewed, there is no legal recourse to take. Yet, the law governing IDEA is clear that there are legal implications if the IEP is not monitored, or changed without parent input. A parent not receiving this information could make a formal complaint to the U.S. Department of Education-Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services. If a parent of a child with a 504 wants to file a complaint, they would do so through the Office of Civil Rights, within the U.S. Department Office of Education.
The 504 plan requires students to receive access to equal educational opportunities but not altered programs. For example, providing extended time for test taking or adaptive software. However, the IEP has an explicitly defined set of safeguards for parent and child that must be adhered to, under the IDEA Act. Some key procedural safeguards include: Notice of written explanation of your parental rights under both IDEA and your state's laws, the right to participate as a parent, and other important guidelines for how parents interact with the school, related to the IEP. For a more in depth article, see this article: www.understood.org/en/school-learning/your-childs-rights/basics-about-childs-rights/10-key-procedural-safeguards-in-idea
While both the IEP and the 504 process enable parents to request that a plan be put into place, a 504 does not necessitate a formalized request; instead, a parent who is seeking this plan would start by calling the principal, to request a meeting to discuss creating a 504 plan. In contrast, requesting that your child be provided an IEP includes writing a formal letter to the Committee on Special Education in your school district. The initial request needs to include your desire that your child be evaluated for a learning disability as well as your specific reasons for making the request. Your school district has 30 days to respond to your request, per IDEA.
Both the IEP and Section 504 have purpose beyond high school. However, the accommodations described in a 504 plan must be followed in a college setting and in a work setting, should the person choose to share the 504 with the college or place of employment since they enable people with a disability to the equal opportunities as typically functioning people; therefore someone with a qualifying handicapping condition must have the tools necessary to complete functions, be it in the classroom or workplace. If, for example, a person requires elevators due to handicapping conditions but does not have access to the second floor for lack of an elevator, the 504 protects them from not being hired to work since it is the employer's responsibility to ensure the person has what is necessary for them to do the job- in this case, the elevator provides access for the handicapping condition, which is required under section 504. In contrast, the IEP provides students leaving high school with transition services. These services include how to apply for services that will assist those with a disability to gain and maintain employment, as well as independent living skills. For example, in New York State, ACCESS-VR provides people with disabilities opportunities to prepare for employment, as well as job coaching in areas such as soft skill development and independent living. For more information on Acces-VR, click this link: www.acces.nysed.gov/vr
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