Individual Education Program (IEP) & 504 Plans – What’s the Difference? Part 2


One common misunderstanding I’ve heard from both parents and teachers is whether it’s “better” to put a student in special education (on an IEP) or on a 504 plan. Let me start by giving the short answer:  one is not better than the other. The needs of the student should dictate which is needed (assuming one of the plans is needed at all).

Let’s start with a little background about IEP and 504 plans. Each plan comes from different laws and has different purposes.

Part 1 – Exploring IEPs

Part 2 – Exploring 504 Plans

What is a 504 Accommodation Plan?

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 makes it illegal for federal programs (or programs that receive federal funding) to discriminate against individuals with disabilities. In 2008, Congress Amended the Americans with Disabilities Act, which expands the number of people who can qualify for 504 accommodations.

These two laws have far-reaching effects that apply to primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, certain employers, and any other program that receives federal funds. All federally-funded programs are required to make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities.

Most people don’t realize that private schools, including parochial schools, may be subject to 504 law if they receive any type of federal funds. For example, private schools often will take federal funds for lunch programs, which in turn makes those private schools subject to 504 requirements.

How does a 504 Accommodation Plan work?

Students qualify for 504 at two levels:

  • At the first level, students may qualify as being persons with disabilities. Having a qualifying disability under 504 means that students are entitled to the protections of 504 law. These students cannot be discriminated against based on their disabilities. All students who qualify under special education also qualify under 504 as being protected from discrimination by Section 504.

Many students qualify for 504 protections, but do not require any kind of accommodations or modifications in the school environment.

For example, a student with ADHD may take medications at home that help the student enough at school such that accommodations are not needed.

  • At the second level, students may qualify if they have disabilities and need accommodations or modifications, such as extended time on assignments or a quiet environment for tests. Schools typically write a formal plan, called a 504 Accommodation Plan, for students who qualify at this second level.


What is not a 504 Accommodation Plan?

A 504 Accommodation Plan is not special education and should not be seen as a substitute for special education. Students who need special education require special instruction by a special educator. This special instruction is the defining distinction between special education and 504.

Students who have a qualifying disability and require special instruction are served under special education.

A 504 Plan is not meant to “give a student an advantage” or “help them live up to their potential.” Rather, a 504 plan is meant to “level the playing field.” For example, students with high IQs might request 504 Plans because identified disabilities keep them from taking Advanced Placement classes. This situation is not what a 504 plan is for. If students have disabilities, but can participate effectively in a typical classroom (i.e., a regular English class instead of an AP English class), then they do not require a 504 Accommodation Plan.

Students under 504 can receive services known as related services. A related service is a service that helps the student access the school environment more effectively. For example, a student who qualifies under 504 whose disability causes struggles with handwriting and fine motor skills may receive services from an occupational therapist to help them develop their fine motor skills.

Forming a 504 Team

Plans and requirements under 504 can become confusing and complicated for both parents and schools. This is why it is important for parents to seek assistance if they need help understanding how their child qualifies and what services are available. This is also why it is best practice for schools to have an intentional and clear process for writing and implementing 504 plans. Inviting parents to the process and working with them as a team is the ideal scenario for creating a successful 504 plan.

Which one is better? IEP or 504?

The question still remains:  Which is better, a 504 plan or special education? The answer, of course, is that it depends on the needs of the individual student. One is not better than the other. However, one might be more appropriate than the other.

It is helpful to know that qualifying under 504 has implications that could extend to college and employment. Colleges and work environments do not implement special education IEPs, but they may be required to provide accommodations or modifications under 504.

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