Braving this new world: Breaking down 504s and IEPs

So your child got diagnosed with a learning disability? They are struggling in school and need extra help at school. Special education, 504s, IEPs, IDEA, accommodations, modifications, and many other new words are all being thrown at you. Welcome to a whole new world of lingo, terminology, and laws. Fear not, you’re not alone.

A 504 plan and an Individualized Education Program (IEP) are both legal documents that provide support and accommodations for students with disabilities. These documents provide the modifications and accommodations to help students succeed in school. However, there are some key differences between the two:

  • Eligibility: To qualify for a 504 plan, a student must have a disability that limits one or more major life activities, such as learning, seeing, hearing, or speaking. The disability does not have to impact academic performance directly. Students don’t need to get a full evaluation to get a 504 plan. In fact, schools often suggest a 504 plan if a child doesn’t qualify for special education but needs support. On the other hand, an IEP is for students who have a diagnosed disability in one or more of the 13 specific categories recognized by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and as a result, require specialized instruction. Some of these disabilities include – dyslexia, ADHD, autism, and anxiety.
  • Purpose: A 504 plan aims to eliminate barriers and provide equal access to education for students with disabilities. It ensures they receive necessary accommodations and support services that allow them to participate fully in school activities and programs. These accommodations don’t change what kids learn, just how they learn it. The goal is to remove barriers and give kids access to learning. An IEP, on the other hand, is a comprehensive plan that outlines specific educational goals, objectives, and services designed to meet the unique needs of the student. IEPs are reviewed annually to monitor progress and reassess goals.
  • Development Process: The process for developing a 504 plan is generally less formal compared to an IEP. A 504 plan is typically created by a team of school staff, including teachers, administrators, and related service providers, in consultation with the student’s parents or guardians. An IEP, however, requires a more structured process, involving evaluations, assessments, and an IEP team that includes parents or guardians, teachers, special education professionals, and other relevant personnel.
  • Services and Accommodations: A 504 plan provides accommodations and support services to help students access the general education curriculum and school environment. Examples of 504 plan accommodations include preferential seating, extended time on tests, assistive technology, or modified assignments. In contrast, an IEP includes not only accommodations but also specialized instruction and related services tailored to the student’s specific needs. These services may include special education classes, speech therapy, occupational therapy, or counseling, among others.
  • Legal Basis: The legal basis for a 504 plan comes from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in any program receiving federal financial assistance. The legal basis for an IEP is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that mandates the provision of special education and related services to eligible students.

Whether a student has a 504 or IEP, a few things are true:

  1. The goal of both the 504 and IEP is the same – to help students thrive in school.
  2. It is intimidating to face the obstacles involved in getting help for any child with a learning disability.
  3. Parents need to be involved, advocate, and not simply depend on the law alone to ensure students with disabilities get the same education as those that don’t.
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