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What’s the Difference Between an IEP and a 504 Plan?

It’s very easy to confuse an Individual Education Plan (IEP) with a 504 Plan. Both IEPs and 504 plans provide accommodations for children with special needs and accommodations in the classroom. IEPs are created for eligible children who attend public school including charter schools. The main difference between the two is that IEPs are covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA and 504 plans are covered under the American Disabilities Act or ADA.

Do you Need an IEP or 504?

If your child needs accommodations to learn and they are struggling to keep up with their peers without accommodations, your child may benefit by having an IEP or 504 plan. First, you should request your child's school to evaluate your child for special education services.

Your school will conduct an evaluation to assess your child in all areas that are related to their disability. It’s important for you to be involved with the evaluation to know what your rights are throughout the process. You are your child’s strongest advocate and you know your child better than anyone else. You play a vital role in the IEP and 504 plan process.

What is an IEP?

An IEP is a document that outlines the educational goals and accommodations for children with disabilities. It's important to remember that a diagnosis alone doesn't automatically qualify a child for an IEP plan. The school will evaluate your child for special education services after you request it in writing. If you already have a diagnosis, it's important to provide their medical diagnosis, psychological evaluation, or educational testing when you submit your written request.

Your child must meet at least one of the 13 qualifying disability categories recognized by the IDEA, and need special education and related services. Your child's disability must affect their educational performance and their ability to learn and benefit from the general education curriculum. Additionally, your child must need specialized instruction to make progress in school. Qualifying disabilities include the following:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Deafness
  • Hearing impairment (including deafness)
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Specific learning disability
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment (including blindness)

IEPs have specific procedures and processes in place for the school to implement the best plan for your child. Your child's IEP is developed by a team of educators, medical professionals, your child's general and special education teacher, you, and your child. IEPs are tailored and individualized to each student. They are designed to tailor special education support and services for your child. 

What is a 504 Plan?

504 plans are more flexible than the criteria required to be eligible for an IEP. A 504 plan is designed for students who have a qualifying disability that interferes with their ability to learn in the classroom. Your child's special education team will create a 504 plan to make sure that they get the accommodations and services they need if they are having difficulty learning in school.

504 plans are for children with physical or mental impairments that substantially limit or restrict one or more of the student’s major life activities. 504 plans must follow Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, also referred to as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Qualifying disabilities under the ADA include the following:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Cancer
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Diabestes
  • Epilepsy
  • Heart disease
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Kidney Disease
  • Lupus
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Paralysis
  • Psychosis
  • Sickle cell anemia
  • Stroke
  • Tourette syndrome

What are the Similarities?

Both IEPs and 504 plans provide accommodations for students that need accommodations in the classroom. They both can include accommodations such as modified curriculum, specialized instruction, and assistive technology. Additionally, they can also both include accommodations for things like transportation and testing. They are also both covered under federal law and reviewed and updated at least once per year. Finally, they are both provided to all education and service providers responsible for teaching your child. 

What are the Differences?

The main difference between an IEP and 504 plan is that IEPs only provide for individualized instruction for your child in grades K-12. 504 plans can continue to assist your child after they graduate and start attending college. A 504 plan can be written to accommodate students who don’t require special education services, but need accommodations in the general education environment. 

504 plans have a broader definition of a disability than the IDEA. 504 plans require your child's disability to substantially limit one or more basic life activities including learning, reading, communicating, and thinking. This is why many children who don't qualify for an IEP might still be able to get a 504 plan. Another important difference is that you're not allowed to request an independent educational evaluation at the school's expense in a 504 plan. Unlike an IEP, where the school will pay for an independent educational evaluation, you are required to pay for it if you want one for a 504 plan.

504 plans can also be written on an as needed basis. For example, my oldest son’s 504 plan allows him to have time and a half for his tests when needed. If he needs additional time to complete his test, he discreetly notifies his teacher or proctor that he needs additional time, and he is then moved to another location to finish his test. His 504 plan also instructs his teachers that he should not sit near the window, an air conditioner, or any area in the classroom that is more prone to noise or distractions. 

It’s vital to know the differences between IEPs and 504 plans to help advocate for your child. It can be very stressful and overwhelming, but once you understand the differences between them, you will feel more confident advocating for what will work best for your child. Your input is important because you know your child best. 

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