IEP or 504 – that is the question!

You may have heard some parents say “my child has a 504 plan” or “my child has an IEP.” The good news is that in the United States, your child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education. For a child with a disability, his education is protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (504). This blog post will help to clarify these two forms of help for your child, so you will learn which one may be most appropriate for your child’s needs. But warning – this is fairly complicated, so be prepared to read this post a couple of times until you fully understand it.

First – a review of the IEP

If your child (age 3 – 21) is diagnosed with a qualifying condition, then he may be eligible for special education services.  If so, your child will receive an IEP. (See my prior post which provides details about the IEP.)  The most important point of an IEP is that it is individualized to meet each child’s unique needs. Also, kids with an IEP are protected by the IDEA, which provides procedures that parents may follow if services are not being provided properly.

The goal of an IEP is to add services and/or therapies in order for your child to be able to learn in school. An IEP can also modify curriculum. For example, if your child is in fifth grade, but is working at a second grade math level due to a disability, then your child may receive math instruction at the second grade level.  In addition to special education, your child may also receive Related Services (occupational, physical, speech therapy, etc.).  For example, by adding occupational therapy, your child may now be able to hold and use a pencil correctly, so that he can write.

So then, what is a 504 plan?

Section 504 refers to a section of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a civil rights law. It protects disabled individuals of all ages from discrimination from any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. For a child in school, Section 504 provides access and reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities.

Public schools cannot deny children with disabilities access to any programs that are available to students without a disability (including extracurricular activities, field trips, etc.). A 504 plan aims to remove obstacles which would prevent a child from being equal to his peers. This is usually accomplished by implementing accommodations. The law does not require a written individualized education plan (IEP) but it does require a plan for reasonable accommodation.  But, unlike the IEP, a 504 plan has few procedural safeguards for parents.

Who qualifies for a 504? What is an “impairment?”

To qualify for a 504, a child must have an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (seeing, hearing, walking, speaking, breathing, performing manual tasks, caring for one’s self).  A child may qualify if there is a record of such impairment; or if he is regarded as having such impairment.

Some examples of qualifying conditions are persons with ADD or ADHD, behavior disorders, asthma and allergies, diabetes, epilepsy, physical handicaps, temporary handicapping conditions, and even communicable diseases. There are many other conditions that may also qualify. See CPIR’s discussion for more info.

What are some examples of 504 accommodations?

504 plan accommodations include (but are not limited to) preferential seating in a classroom, extending time on a test, using an organizer, offering assistive technology, taking tests orally, etc. The accommodations are based on the child’s needs.

A 504 plan is designed to put kids on an equal footing with their peers, so that they compete on a level playing field with non-disabled children. However, unlike an IEP, a 504 plan is not able to individualize curricula (grade level work).  But, a child with a 504 plan may receive Related Services (occupational, physical or speech therapy, assistive technology, psychological or counseling services, hearing services, etc.) if his testing shows he qualifies.

Don’t be alarmed if you read this post two or three times and still have questions. Here is a chart summarizing how the two plans differ.

Major differences

IEP    (Special Education)                                 504 plan

  • Highly regulated by federal laws. Requires a formal process and timeline. Parents have many rights.
  • Eligibility criteria are met through formal evaluation(s). Parents need to give consent for diagnostic testing.


  • Requires parents participate in the process (IEP meetings) or opt out.
  •  Is highly individualized and parents receive regular reports on progress.
  • Is designed to meet a child’s unique needs. A child may receive accommodations, curriculum modifications, the use of a special curriculum, and even a private placement, as long as the IEP team decides it is appropriate.


  • A child in special education may also receive related services if he needs it.


  • An IEP is used for kids ages 3-21 only. Children “age out” of special education when they graduate from high school or reach age 22.
  • Offers due process remedies for school’s non-compliance.



  • Much easier to obtain and implement. Process is not formal and parents have few rights.
  •  A child qualifies if his condition substantially limits a major life activity. Requires notice but not parental consent. A formal diagnosis is not necessarily required.
  • Parents do not have to attend meetings. A written plan is not required.
  • Does not require measurable goals and objectives. Teachers do not have to report on progress.
  • The goal is to put kids on an equal footing with non-disabled peers. A child may receive accommodations but not educational modifications (eg. changing the curriculum).  Education is not individualized.


  • A child with a 504 plan is not in special education, but he may still receive related services if he qualifies.
  • Section 504 safeguards the rights of a person with disabilities throughout his lifespan- in public places, employment, transportation, health, etc. It is not only for school-aged kids.
  • Few procedural safeguards for school’s non-compliance.


Bottom line

A child in special education (with an IEP) is protected under the IDEA, which means he has more rights than a child with only a 504 plan. In addition, a child in special education is also automatically protected under Section 504. But, a child with only a 504 plan (not in special education) is not protected under the IDEA. Keep in mind that more is not always better – it is important to figure out what is best for your child and stay on top of his needs as he grows and changes. I urge you to read more about this topic at The Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR) website.

As the late President John F. Kennedy said, “All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talent.” You do not know how far your child can go until you have provided him with the tools and supports to maximize his potential. In the U.S., there is the IDEA and Section 504 to help you help your kids.

Note: This post is part of the new weekly series Delays and disabilities – how to get help for your child. It was started on January 16, 2013 and appears every Wednesday. Feel free to go back to look at prior posts as the series builds on itself.

Updated September 2015.


  • comment-avatar

    This is an issue that comes up over and over for me in my professional as a speech language pathologist in a public school. Thanks for the clarification.

  • comment-avatar
    PATRICIA PINEDA April 22, 2016

    This is a great explanation of the differences between the two. Thanks for explaining it in the simplest terms, this is by far the best explanation I have seen thus far.

    Thank You!