Section 504: The Other White Meat?

Published on July 26, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

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Was I the only one who didn’t quite buy that whole ad campaign a few years ago about pork?  You know the one: you see various pork dishes, with the chop all dressed up to look healthy along its fresh veggie side dishes?  Crisp music playing in the background, sight and sound all designed to convince you that you could just as easily be looking at turkey or chicken and trying to deflect attention from the fact that what you’re actually looking at is, well…pork.

This is kind of how I feel when a parent asks for special education services and their school gives them a 504 Plan.

When parents inquire of their child’s school whether a disability might require specialized instruction, the district should begin the process of considering eligibility under the IDEA.  Unfortunately, in an effort to avoid giving a child special education and related services through an IEP, many school districts will side-step the IDEA process and choose to convene a “504 Meeting” instead.   “504” refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and it is NOT the same thing as the IDEA.

Very generally, 504 Plans are appropriate for students who require accommodations, rather than special education services.

There are a number of key differences between these two statutes, and of course I am summarizing a rather complex subject.  In my special education practice in Connecticut, I am surprised by how many of the parents I speak to who are not sure whether their child has an IEP or a 504 Plan.   This is probably because they have been told by their child’s school that they are equivalent.  They are not.  What you need to know is that, if you are looking for your child to receive specialized instruction and related services, then what you really want and need is an IEP, not a 504 Plan.

Section 504 applies to any entity that receives federal funds, whereas the IDEA is, by definition, an education law.

Section 504 is really, at its heart, an accommodations act, whereas the IDEA governs special education services.  Just to make matters trickier, however, if your child receives an IEP under the IDEA, they will usually also receive accommodations; however, they will be getting those in addition to services.  The reverse is typically not true, though; usually 504 Plans don’t include direct special education services.

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What kinds of kids only need a 504 Plan?

A good example to conceptualize the difference is to think of a child who has diabetes.  That child may require any number of accommodations in school (e.g. different food in the cafeteria, the ability to be excused from some activities that may be difficult to participate in, etc.), but there is nothing about the way that this student learns that requires specialized instruction.  That student would most likely require a 504 Plan.  The tougher cases to decide are those where a student has an acknowledged disability, like ADHD, but the school is saying that the child’s needs can be met with mere accommodations, and the parents believe that special education services are necessary through an IEP.

From my view, parents have far fewer rights under 504 than they have under the IDEA.

The IDEA has an entire section dedicated to the procedural safeguards which children with disabilities and their parents have, and a detailed description of the appeals process for disagreements.  In addition, an infrastructure exists in all states for how a parent goes about challenging determinations made under the IDEA.  In terms of the documents themselves, IEPs are fairly lengthy, with detailed goals and objectives; descriptions of the student’s present levels of academic and functional performance across a number of domains; and specific outlines of how those goals will be met through services.  504 Plans, on the other hand, are sometimes one line on a piece of paper.

The substantial work necessary to develop IEPs, and the significant obligations which fall on school districts under them, explain much of why parents are persuaded to accept 504 Plans instead.

And most parents have absolutely no idea.  They are simply told that the team has decided that their child is eligible for a 504 Plan, and the IDEA is barely mentioned.  Many leave the meeting thrilled that their school has agreed that their child needs extra support in school.  I have had many clients come to me after their children have been “on and off” of 504 Plans repeatedly throughout their education, only to learn later that they really were eligible for an IEP from the beginning.

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If your school district suggests a 504 Plan, ask why he or she doesn’t qualify for an IEP, and be sure that the response is documented.

Not all kids with disabilities are eligible for IEPs, and sometimes 504 eligibility is the most appropriate route to take.  I’m not as concerned about those cases where the school has a legitimate reason to believe that a 504 Plan is appropriate.  Rather, I worry about those situations where a child gets a 504 Plan merely because creating and monitoring it is much easier for the school staff than an IEP.

The “spin” that school districts put out that 504 Plans are “just as good as” IEPs is so self-serving, I’m amazed I haven’t seen a commercial for it yet.

3 Responses to Section 504: The Other White Meat?

  1. Craig
    July 26th, 2009 | 8:54 pm

    This is very helpful Jennifer. Parents can get very confused by a process that I think is designed to confuse and obfuscate them from the get-go. It’s important to know your rights, the difference between a 504 plan and an IEP and make sure that the school isn’t cutting corners and short-changing your child. As Jen writes, they must document why they believe your child isn’t qualified for an IEP – be prepared, be ready to ask questions and not simply nod your head yes and thank them for very little… Thank you for posting this. Craig

  2. Deirdre
    November 9th, 2012 | 10:32 am

    Our school has implied that there is a stigma involved with an IEP plan that isn’t there with a 504 plan and that once you have an IEP, there’s no going back. Is there any truth to this?

  3. Jennifer Laviano
    November 9th, 2012 | 9:01 pm

    No. That’s as simple as I can put it. Also please check out this blog post about the “stigma” associated with special ed: http://www.connecticutspecialeducationlawyer.com/parents/is-there-a-stigma-associated-with-special-education-services/

    Thanks for reading!