Understanding the Differences Between an IEP and a 504 Plan

Understanding the Differences Between an IEP and a 504 Plan

- in Ages & Stages, Education, Legal, Special Needs

If your child has a learning disability or requires accommodations to learn in the classroom, there are a host of specialized services available to your child under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Understanding what your child qualifies for and how to access those services can be a challenge. However, below is a snapshot to help understand those services.

What is a 504 Plan?
A 504 Plan is based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a civil rights law that prevents discrimination based on physical disabilities. This federal law requires schools to eliminate any barriers that prevent students with disabilities from participating fully in their education. It also ensures that accommodations and support services are provided to students so they have equal access to education.

Who is eligible for a 504 Plan?
504 Plans are available for public school students who have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity such as reading or concentrating. This impairment must be documented after the school performs an evaluation to validate whether the disability limits the ability to learn and participate in the general education classroom. The evaluation can include a variety of questions reviewing the student’s tests and quizzes or classwork within a class day, or it may be a more formal evaluation with multiple education professionals – but it varies by school district.

What types of accommodations can I expect for my student with a 504 plan?
While a 504 Plan is appropriate when a student has a physical disability, it focuses primarily on how a child will have access to learning at school. For example, a 504 Plan might require a student’s classroom be wheelchair accessible, braille workbooks be provided for a blind student or a sign language translator be involved in the classroom for a student who is deaf. If your child has a learning disability, the 504 plan provide for accommodations such as extended time to take tests or quizzes, no more than two exams in one day, and/or preferential seating in the classroom.

What is an IEP?
An IEP is an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a formal plan for a child’s special education experience at school. It is an important legal document under IDEA that requires public schools to create a plan for every child receiving special education services. It is a legally binding document that spells out your child’s learning needs, the services the school will provide and how the plan will be measured and evaluated over time. The IEP should address your child’s unique learning concerns and include specific educational goals.

Who is eligible for an IEP?
There is a legal standard for eligibility in order for your student to qualify for an IEP. He or she must have a learning issue that falls in one of thirteen determined disability categories – and this disability must prevent your student from progressing in school. In addition, your child must undergo an evaluation process by a team of education professionals which includes but is not limited to the parents, the student, school administrators, intervention specialist, occupational therapist, speech and reading intervention specialists, guidance counselor and the classroom teacher.

What types of accommodations can I expect for my student with an IEP?
An IEP is individualized to meet your child’s specific education needs, but by law it must contain a thorough description of your child’s current abilities, skills, weaknesses and strengths. If your child needs support services such as reading intervention, it will list how many minutes a week he or she will receive this therapy. If your child needs accommodations and modifications, such as extra time to take tests or to have tests read aloud, this will be documented. It will also list supplementary aids and services to help your child learn in the general classroom, this could include assistive technology such as audiobooks or hand-held learning devices to convert speech to text.

Getting the Services your Child Needs
If your child is struggling to learn in the classroom, your first step is to meet with the teacher or school administrator to share your concerns. Remember that you know your child best, and by understanding the basics of a 504 Plan and an IEP, you should be able to be a stronger advocate to get them the services that they need under the laws spelled out through IDEA and the ADA.

— By Susan C. Stone and Mary Jo O’Neill, who works closely with McCarthy Lebit’s Education practice team to add value and provide support to clients. Click here to view this content as it originally appeared on the firm’s blog.

About the author

Susan C. Stone is the head of the Education practice group at McCarthy Lebit. She has a strong litigation background that includes representing both plaintiffs and defendants in state and federal courts involving criminal defense, employment issues and other forms of negligence and contract disputes. Susan has spearheaded McCarthy Lebit’s Education practice to encompass, among other topics, special education law, including due process complaints and the negotiation of IEPs and 504 plans.

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