Ask the Advocate: The Difference Between IEP and Section 504 Plans


This is a question that I am asked frequently. While there are similarities between a Section 504 Plan and an IEP, each has different provisions.

For students with disabilities,
two federal laws protect and
guarantee their educational rights: The Individuals with Disabilities
Education Improvement Act, or IDEA (initially enacted in 1975), which regulates IEPs, and
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or 504. Both laws
provide students with disabilities with a Free Appropriate Public
Education or FAPE.

At a Glance: A 504 Plan is intended for students with disabilities who are, with specific accommodations, able to benefit from participating in a general education classroom. An IEP, on the other hand, is intended for students with specific disabilities who require special instruction and services (Special Education). An IEP will include specialized instruction and services and may include modifications (changes to the curriculum), whereas a 504 Plan does not make changes to the general education curriculum.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between the two:

An IEP is an Individualized Education Program that is required for eligible individuals whose disability adversely affects their educational performance and/or ability to benefit from general education. Students who qualify for an IEP under the IDEA receive Special Education – which is defined as specifically designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including special instruction delivered in the classroom, at home, in hospitals and institutions, and other settings. According to their unique needs, students with an IEP have the right to a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). The IDEA defines FAPE as “an educational program that is individualized to a specific child, that meets that child’s unique needs, provides access to the general curriculum, meets the grade-level standards established by the state, and from which the child receives educational benefit.”

Who is eligible? Under the IDEA, an eligible student is one who has one or more categorized disabilities as defined by law, such as Specific Learning Disability (SLD), Other Health Impairment (OHI), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Emotional or Behavioral Disturbance, Speech or Language Impairment, Visual Impairment, Hearing Impairment, Deaf-Blindness, Orthopedic Impairment, Intellectual Disability, Traumatic Brain Injury, or multiple disabilities. IEP eligibility age under Part B of the IDEA is from 3 to 22.

What is included in an IEP? An IEP describes special instruction and services that a student will receive and must consist of: the student’s disability, the student’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, services and supplemental aids the school will provide, goals and objectives, and how they will be measured, accommodations and modifications, where the student’s learning will take place and how much time the student will be included with non-disabled peers, transition planning for older students, a behavior intervention plan to address any significant behaviors, and how the student will participate in standardized testing. The student’s needs may be addressed in the general education setting, in a specialized environment, or in a combination of settings. Evaluations are conducted to determine eligibility, and reevaluations must be conducted every three years. The IEP is developed by a team, which includes the parent and student and is reviewed annually.

A Section 504 Plan is a plan for eligible students with disabilities or impairments detailing services and accommodations necessary to access everything that non-disabled students can, including the general education curriculum. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, individuals are protected from discrimination in educational settings based solely on their disability in programs run by federal agencies and programs that receive federal financial assistance. Students with disabilities who attend colleges and universities are protected under Section 504. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects the student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). It defines FAPE as “the provision of regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet individual needs of handicapped persons as adequately as the needs of nonhandicapped persons are met and are based on adherence to procedures that satisfy the requirements of (the section).”

Who is eligible? An eligible individual is one who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities such as learning, speaking, walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, working, self-care, or performing manual tasks; or has a record of an impairment; or is regarded as having an impairment.

What’s included in a 504 Plan? Generally, a Section 504 Plan includes the student’s disability or impairment, specific accommodations, services, and supplemental aids the school will provide to allow the student to participate in the general curriculum. Unlike an IEP, modifications (changes to the curriculum) are not included. Accommodations do not change the curriculum the student receives. Examples may include extra time allowed for assignments and testing, frequent breaks, training for staff, and special seating arrangements. No formal school evaluations are required, but parental or adult student consent is needed if one is conducted.

Information must be considered from various sources such as a doctor’s recommendation, documentation from qualified professionals, and discussion with parents. The plan is developed by a committee, which includes the parent and student and is reviewed as needed. Depending on your child’s disability and how it impacts his learning, one or both laws may apply.

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Information in the “Ask the Advocate” column does not constitute legal advice. For more information contact

About the Advocate:
Special Education Consultant & Advocate, Amy Scott Lorton, of My IEP Advocate, has been helping parents navigate the complicated special education process since 2002. Amy holds a Certificate in Special Education Advocacy from William and Mary Law School and earned multiple teaching certificates. Amy has over two decades of experience teaching students with disabilities as well as personal experience raising a child with a disability. Amy is an active member of Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) and National Association of Professional Special Education Advocates (NASEA). Amy also partners with local disability support agencies and non-profit organizations to offer quality advocacy and informational training and workshop opportunities to parents and professionals.


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