Empowering parents and students with disabilities

IEP vs. 504

What’s the difference and which one is better?

There’s a lot of confusion out there over the difference between an IEP and a 504 Plan. Explaining them both in detail would result in a really long post and possibly only further complicate things, so I’m going to try to sum up the key differences in the shortest way possible. If you’d like to read a slightly more lengthy explanation of both, I have that under the Special Ed Law link at the top of the page.

The most common misconception I hear is that a 504 plan is not “as good” as an IEP. That’s not exactly true, and I’ll swing back around to why once I’ve explained what each one is.

An IEP, or Individualized Education Program, is a document that is developed for a child who qualifies for accommodations under IDEA, or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. IDEA is an education law that mandates that children with disabilities are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), and ensures they receive related services and special education. IDEA outlines 13 specific disabilities under which a child qualifies for Special Education. A child must not only have one of these disabilities, but it must be shown to have a negative effect on their educational performance. A child on an IEP Plan requires specialized instruction, and the IEP outlines what that is, when it will start, how long it will last and how it will occur.

A 504 Plan is born of Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal civil law that prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities. Under Section 504, a child with any disability that interferes with learning is eligible for accommodations. So, often times, a child who doesn’t qualify for an IEP can qualify for a 504 plan, as the definition of ‘disability’ is far more broad. The goal of a 504 Plan is to make accommodations in the general education classroom that enable the disabled child to receive the same educational opportunities as his/her nondisabled peers. It does not assume that the child requires Special Education, as that would fall under IDEA.

In a nutshell, an IEP is a document that outlines a child’s educational experience, and a 504 Plan outlines how a child will access their education. Of course, it’s far more complicated than that. There are also differences in how the documents are created, who is on the team, how you resolve disputes, and so on. Noting the word ‘access’ is a good way to remember the key difference. Neither document is inherently better than the other, and which one a child is on depends on the circumstances of that child and their disability. The best one is the one that more appropriately serves the child and their needs.

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