When it comes to education, two federal laws protect public school students with disabilities: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Not all students with disabilities qualify for the protections of both laws. Each law has specific eligibility requirements and guidelines for services.
A student with a disability is eligible for a Section 504 Accommodation plan if he or she requires modifications and/or accommodations in order to have equal access to classes and programs. However, these students may not need specialized instruction in order to make progress in the general curriculum. For that reason, they would not be eligible for special education.
In order to be eligible for special education under IDEA, a student must have a disability and need specialized instruction in order to access the general curriculum. Specialized instruction refers to a change in the curriculum content, methodology or delivery of instruction that is provided in the general education classroom.
Differences Between an IEP and a 504
- Section 504 is a broad federal civil rights law. It is a part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and it’s purpose is to protect persons with disabilities against discrimination for reasons related to their disabilities. The Individualized Education Program (IEP) is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA).
- The purpose of IDEA is: “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment and independent living” and “to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected … (Section 1400(d))”. Unlike IDEA, Section 504 does not guarantee that a child with a disability will receive an individualized educational program that is designed to meet the child’s individual educational needs. Under Section 504, an “appropriate” education means an education that is comparable to the education provided to students without disabilities.
- A 504 plan’s objective is to remove barriers and allow students with disabilities to participate freely. An IEP focuses on providing educational services.
- A child who receives Section 504 protections has fewer rights than the child who receives special education services under the IDEA. The child who receives special education services under the IDEA is automatically protected under Section 504.
- Under Section 504, the child with a disability may receive accommodations and modifications that are not available to children who are not disabled. These accommodations and modifications are also available under IDEA.
- The 504 is a plan but the school is not required to develop a written document for this plan. The federal and state laws and regulations concerning the development of IEPs and the evaluation of special education students is very detailed and requires each plan to address specific elements. 504 plans are not as detailed and the requirements for evaluation are not as specific.
- Like the IEP, a 504 plan should be updated annually to ensure that the student is receiving the most effective accommodations for his/her specific circumstances.
- There are no requirements stating who must attend the 504 plan meeting. The school does not have to invite the parent to the meeting when the 504 plan is developed but they do have to notify the parents once the 504 plan is developed. A minimum number of IEP participants and who they are, such as administrator, general education teacher, and special education teacher, are stipulated and parents must be invited to participate.
- With a 504 plan, reports of noncompliance and the request for a hearing are made to the Office for Civil Rights. With an IEP, reports of noncompliance and the request for due process are made to the State’s Department of Education. Both Section 504 and IDEA require school districts to conduct impartial hearings for parents who disagree with the school’s special education team in regards to identification, evaluation, or placement of their child. Under Section 504, the parent has an opportunity to participate and obtain legal counsel, but other details are left to the discretion of the school district, this is not the case with an IEP.
- When the child graduates from high school with a regular diploma or reaches the age of 22, the child’s entitlement to rights under IDEA ends. IDEA rights do not follow the child into college or the workplace. Section 504 provides protections against discrimination after the child leaves public school.
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