• Christina Delgado, M.Ed.

Section 504 vs. IDEA - Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

*Note: This blog post includes a large amount of research based references.

Section 504 vs. IDEA

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that has evolved over the past 30 years. In 1990, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was reevaluated and changed into IDEA (Aron & Loprest, 2012). IDEA became a law in 1990, then amendments were added to IDEA in 1997, and the final modifications to IDEA were done in 2004 with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act. IDEA was created for four reasons: to reaffirm all aspects of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, to add two more disability categories to the list of disabilities, to provide a deeper understanding of what transition services include, and to allow assistive technology to be more accessible to individuals with disabilities (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.14). In contrast, Section 504’s main purpose is to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities, and to provide these individuals with equal access and opportunities to services, programs, and organizations (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.11).

One of the main differences between IDEA and Section 504 is that Section 504 protects individuals with disabilities with no age limitation. Section 504 requires equal access for individuals with disabilities while enrolled and unenrolled in school (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.14). Conversely, IDEA only provides legal protection to youth who are enrolled in a school setting (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p. 25-27).


Section 504:

To be eligible under Section 504, an individual must have a mental or physical impairment that limits a minimum of one commonly executed common life activity (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p. 11). Disabilities that would qualify under Section 504 are related to deficiencies in sensory skills, manual abilities, or speech. Limited common life activities include learning, walking, speaking, seeing, and breathing (Kim & Samples, 2013). Examples of a mental or physical impairment covered by Section 504 include intellectual disabilities, certain physical deformities, and specific learning disabilities (Kim & Samples, 2013). Under Section 504, students with disabilities are legally entitled to additional tools and other aids (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.11).

Individualized Education Plan (IEP):

According to Darden (2013), it is a lengthier, more detailed process for a student to receive an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) versus when receiving a 504 plan in the public school system. For a student to be eligible for an IEP in public education, students must have already received Tier II and Tier III Response to Intervention (RTI) services (Jenkins, Schiller, Blackorby, Thayer, & Tilly, 2013). The education system has created instructional tiers to best assist student learning. Tier I instruction is more commonly referred to as general education classes (Jenkins, Schiller, Blackorby, Thayer, & Tilly, 2013). Tier II is designed for students who are academically falling behind in reading or mathematics, and would benefit from additional assistance and small group instruction multiple times a week. Once students still are not demonstrating improvements with Tier II intervention, then they are provided Tier III instruction. Tier III is primarily one on one additional instruction provided in reading and mathematics for students who are most often eligible for special needs testing (Jenkins, Schiller, Blackorby, Thayer, & Tilly, 2013). Student work, assessments, and other data must to be tracked during this process. If data along with teacher observations determines that the student is not showing adequate improvements, then the student can be recommended for testing by the school psychologist (Darden, 2013). Also, parents have the option to receive private testing services for their child. From this evaluation, the student must fall into at least one of the 13 categories which allow IEP eligibility under IDEA (Darden, 2013). The following are IDEA’s 13 disability categories: autism, specific learning disability, orthopedic impairment, deaf and blindness, deafness, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, visual impairment, other health impairments, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, and emotional disturbance (Darden, 2013).


Section 504:

Section 504 prohibit discrimination from individuals with disabilities through schooling, employment, organizations, and government. Section 504’s documentation guarantees opportunities for participation and equal benefits. Under Section 504, segregation or discrimination in housing, education, activities, procedures, and employment is not permitted (Kim & Samples, 2013). In efforts to reach equal access for all, many programs, organizations (including schools and universities), and activities receive federal funds under Section 504. However, funds may be cut off if the institution or organization does not use the funds to better assist their population of disabled individuals. For example, Section 504 includes architectural accessibility in schools and organizations. Schools and other organizations are removing barriers, such as stairs, in certain areas in the facility, and are replacing them with barrier free accessibly. If Section 504 funds are collected by the organization, but changes are not made, the federal funds will be reduced or cut off (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.14). Furthermore, Section 504 is the law most referred to and utilized during court cases pertaining to disabled individuals in colleges, universities, and in the field of employment (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.14).

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1990):

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has a variety of components in its documentation. IDEA has seven key components to its existence. These seven components include: Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), appropriate evaluations, teacher and parent participation and collaboration, individualized transition plans (ITP), and procedural safeguards (Aron & Loprest, 2012). Under IDEA, students with disabilities are entitled to assistive technologies and corresponding services, such as calculators for students who have learning disabilities or closed captioning television for students who has hearing deficits (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.11).

Amendments to the Individuals With Disabilities Act (1997):

In 1997, the Amendments to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act were used to add to and modify IDEA. One of these modifications specified which stakeholders should be present during IEP meetings, a part of IEP teams, and relevant when creating IEP documentation (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.12). The amendments also specified mandatory procedures and paperwork needed for IEP documentation (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.28). In addition, IDEA’s regulations and disciplinary standards were updated. Furthermore, each state became responsible for tracking and documenting the academic performance, growth, and evolution of each special needs student. From these amendments, students with disabilities and schools were required to take accountability for the education both received and provided. Since government mandated assessments were implemented, special needs students were held accountable for the first time for their own academic performance. Equally, this was the first time that schools became accountable for ensuring students’ progress. During this time, the equal treatment of special needs students and typically developing students became apparent. (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.28). Also, parents became entitled to progress monitoring reports available in the same time frame as general education students. Finally, IEP goals and documentation need to be identified as measureable and specific (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.28).

Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004:

Due to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 even more modifications were made the IDEA. These modifications included requiring special needs students to be taught by highly qualified and certified educators (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.31). Another modification was the removal of the previously imbedded amendment allowing students to take assessments in their own native language (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.33).

Now short term goals on the IEP are no longer required. However, the long term goals are still permitted on the IEP (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.13). Once the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 was modified, student discrepancy rates became no longer required when recognizing and classifying special needs students anymore (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.13). The final revision made to IDEA was to require thought out, goal oriented transition plans for students who are 16 years and older (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.13). In efforts to best support students with disabilities in an educational setting, government officials have been able to modify IDEA throughout the years.

IDEA vs. Section 504


Both IDEA and Section 504 share many requirements mentioned within the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. They share requirements include the following: ensure students are truly receiving a free and appropriate education (FAPE), ensure students are provided the least restrictive environment (LRE), notification to parents requesting attendance and collaboration during educational planning meetings (504 plan meeting and IEP meeting), parental rights of viewing their child’s academic records, fair and nondiscriminatory assessments, and resolution processes (Aron & Loprest, 2012). Both IDEA and Section 504’s safeguards were designed to protect children with disabilities and their families (Aron & Loprest, 2012).


While IDEA and Section 504 have several commonalities, they also differ in a variety of ways. Firstly, Section 504 and IDEA do use different types of student education plans. Section 504’s student education plan is called a 504 plan, while IDEA’s plan is called an individuated education plan (IEP) (Aron & Loprest, 2012). Both state individualized accommodations, modifications, placement, services, and support that the student will receive when in school and during school assessments (Aron & Loprest, 2012). The IEP is known to be more detail oriented, specific, and describes measurable goals for the student, while the 504 plan is known to be less detailed and shorter in length (Aron & Loprest, 2012).

While IDEA and Section 504 have different individualized education plans for special needs students, they vary in other ways as well. For example, IDEA requires that schools create and enforce an individualized transition plan (ITP) for students who are 16 years and older. Section 504 does not require an ITP (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.26). In addition, Section 504 and IDEA are enforced by two different offices. Section 504 is enforced by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), while IDEA is enforced by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) (Aron & Loprest, 2012). Also, once IDEA became a law in 1990, two new disability categories (autism and traumatic brain injury) were included as categories of children with disabilities (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.12). Section 504 has been unable to add categories as defined disabilities (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.15). For example, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is not categorized as a disability according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). However, Section 504 does allow individuals with ADD to receive services (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.15). This is because IDEA only protects children who have a disability that are classified within their parameters. Some children who have special needs do not qualify to fall under IDEA, but Section 504 has a looser definition of what qualifies an individual to have a disability. Therefore, it is possible for a child to fall under Section 504 and not IDEA (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 2006, p.13-15). Both IDEA and Section 504 have many similarities and differences. However, many educators agree that parental consent and involvement is just as important as these laws when striving for student success (Aron & Loprest, 2012).

Parental Consent and Involvement:

An essential key to reaching student success, especially for students with a disability, is collaboration and cooperation amongst stakeholders. One of the most important participating stakeholders are the student’s parents (Kim & Samples, 2013). Both Section 504 and IDEA require that the parents of a student with a disability to be notify and encouraged to attend their child’s IEP meeting or 504 plan meeting. Both plans include the accommodations, services, and support that the students will receive within the school (Kim & Samples, 2013). Both laws entitle parents of a special needs child to due process rights, which allows them to an impartial hearing in the case of disagreeing with the school’s decisions on the student’s 504 plan documentation (Kim & Samples, 2013).

Although parents are notified and encouraged to attend IEP meetings and 504 plan meetings, parents are only required to get involved and approve of an IEP. Parental involvement and approval is not required when conducting a 504 plan meeting, or when placing a student under Section 504 (Zirkel, 2014). If parents do not attend a 504 plan meeting, it is mandatory for the school to provide them with a notice of the committee’s decisions. Parents must be notified if their child is placed under Section 504, and a copy of their child’s 504 accommodation plan must be provided as well (Zirkel, 2014). Contrary to the 504 plan meetings, parents must attend IEP meetings (Darden, 2013). Physical attendance is preferred, but in some cases a conference call or a virtual conference will be counted as parental attendance (Darden, 2013). The federal law does not require a parent