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Crash Course on Public School Accommodations

A series of four articles to teach you how to navigate the public school system for accommodations for your child under a 504 plan

PART 2: 504 vs. IEP

 When it comes to education jargon, it is easy for parents to get lost in the lingo. The names of programs, laws, abbreviations, and specialized vocabulary are cryptic and confusing—sometimes even to educators. It is important for you to be familiar with these terms so you will not feel lost when school personnel use them. Please note that I will use the word “disability” in this article. While you may prefer another phrase like “differently abled,”  the legal term used in federal law is “disability,” and it is a powerful word in the school system.

In most cases, students with mild disabilities need only accommodations in school through a 504 plan, which takes its name from Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal civil rights law that applies in many settings, including public schools. (The law may also apply to private schools if they receive funding through a federal grant.)

Alternatively, special education is appropriate for students who have disabilities requiring changes to the curriculum. An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is developed for eligible students as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). An IEP is a more intensive intervention than a 504 plan and is not necessary for most students.

In brief, a 504 plan provides accommodations for how a student learns, while an IEP modifies what a student learns.

Students with 504 plans complete the same assignments and assessments as their peers without disabilities, but with accommodations in the timing, formatting, setting, scheduling, response, or presentation. Examples include extended time for testing, copies of teachers’ notes/presentations, and preferential seating.

An IEP may include accommodations like those in a 504 plan, but it also changes what a student learns compared to students in the general education classroom. These modifications may include substituting regular textbooks with those using less complicated vocabulary, reducing the complexity of assignments, and adjusting tests so that they measure fewer standards than required for their grade-level peers. Only students with significant cognitive or physical disabilities require modifications of this kind.

Most students with IEPs are mainstreamed into regular classrooms. If your student’s class has a team teacher in the room, that teacher is probably a special education teacher who provides additional supports for particular students in that class. The team teacher, however, helps all students in the class, and most likely, your child has no idea who is receiving academic modifications or why there is a second teacher in the room. Since both 504s and IEPs are confidential, teachers must make every effort to protect the privacy of that information. Students with more profound disabilities or those with significant mobility problems may have a parapro, assistive personnel who are not teachers, to accompany individual children in class throughout the school day.

Not only do 504 plans provide less intensive support than IEPs, the 504 eligibility process is simpler and usually faster. To qualify for accommodations under Section 504, an individual must have “a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Major life activities include caring for oneself, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, working, performing manual tasks, or learning.

In the school setting, a 504 plan “levels the playing field,” providing students with disabilities with equal access to their education; however, the accommodations need not maximize the students’ potential. For this reason, students with disabilities who are already performing at the level of their peers are not eligible for accommodations, as the diagnosis alone is not sufficient to create a 504 plan. There must be a significant educational impact.

Here is an example: Consider two students with nearsightedness (myopia). The first student has significant myopia and cannot see clearly anything that is more than four feet away. Without glasses, the student’s poor vision “substantially limits” her learning because she cannot read the board or participate in other activities that require better vision. For the student to have “equal access” to learning, she requires glasses, an accommodation. Notice that the glasses do not provide the student with an advantage over other students in the classroom; they merely “level the playing field” so that the student may see as well as her normally sighted peers.

Another student in the same class has very slight myopia discovered through a routine exam. The student had never noticed any difficulty with his vision, and the impact is so minor that, after consulting with the doctor, his parents decide not to get glasses at this time. This student does not need glasses for “equal access” to learning.

Although both students have myopia, only the first student has a condition that “substantially limits one or more major life activities,” so only that student is accommodated. (Note: A 504 plan is not required for typical myopia, although a student who is legally blind would require 504 accommodations because glasses alone would not give the student equal access to learning.)

If your child is struggling academically as a result of a diagnosed disability, contact the school’s 504 coordinator immediately to schedule a 504 eligibility meeting. For step-by-step advice on pursuing a 504 plan, see the previous article in this series.

Even if your child’s disability is not currently having an impact on academic performance that causes him or her to perform below his or her peers, you should still consider filing documentation with the school’s 504 coordinator. Although accommodations may not be necessary right now, they might be in the future, and you would have the first step completed in advance. Also, if the school has documentation on the diagnosis, your child is protected from discrimination under Section 504, even if a 504 plan is not required at this time.

Next article: Developing Stellar Accommodations