I’ve had many conversations lately about the power of the 504 Plan. For some reason, there seems to be a misconception you have to go with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or go home.
Well, that’s just not true. I’m telling you—don’t diss the 504 Plan.
A Quick Glance at IEPs
An IEP is provided under the special education law, The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). It provides “specially designed instruction” to make sure kids who are eligible for special education get what they need to get the same education as their non-disabled peers. It outlines special education, accommodations and related services.
To have an IEP, your child has to be evaluated and have a disability that fits into one of the 13 defined categories. And that disability has to affect his ability to learn or function in the classroom. There’s an eligibility process. The IEP is legally binding once it’s written.
A Quick Glance at 504 Plans
A 504 Plan is provided under a civil rights law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The law says that any institution that receives federal funds has to make sure that people with disabilities are able to participate like non-disabled peers to the “greatest extent possible.”
In this case, a disability is defined as something that limits one or more major life activities. It has a broader definition of what constitutes a disability than IDEA does. A 504 Plan outlines the educational services and accommodations your child needs to have the same access to general education as other kids.
Misconceptions About IEPs and 504 Plans
So, what’s fueling the outrage at not getting an IEP and having to “settle for” a 504 Plan? In part, I think it’s that people simply don’t understand a few basic things about special education services. And why would they? If it’s not your field, it’s complicated to understand. Let me clear some of them up:
Misconception: Having a disability automatically qualifies your child for special education.
Your child’s diagnosis doesn’t mean he’s eligible for special education. It has to have an “adverse effect” on his education. That means his disability has to be getting in the way of his learning in a way that is having an impact, whether it’s academic or functional. For instance, his grades are affected or the behavioral symptoms make it hard for him to participate in the classroom like other kids.
Misconception: Schools offer a 504 Plan because they don’t want to provide services.
Schools often offer 504 Plans because they can’t provide special education services. There are some pretty strict guidelines around special education eligibility. The school isn’t saying that your child doesn’t have a disability, or that he doesn’t need modifications in school to make it easier for the effects of that disability.
What they are saying is that all the information about your child—evaluations, observations, report cards, grades—don’t show that his disability is making learning so difficult that he’s not able to learn in the regular education classroom without specific specialized instruction.
Your child may not need specialized instruction to learn in the regular education classroom, but if his disability is limiting him in a way that’s making it hard for him to get the same benefit in the classroom as his peers, a 504 Plan can help.
Misconception: Your child has to have a 504 Plan before moving on to an IEP.
Nope. If your child’s evaluation shows that his disability has an adverse effect on his education and he’s eligible for special education, you don’t have to start with a 504 Plan. The 504 Plan isn’t a stepping stone to an IEP.
Why You Shouldn’t Diss a 504 Plan
And the 504 Plan isn’t a cop out either. If it’s written well and followed, it means your child can learn in the general education classroom with some support. That’s something worth celebrating, not lamenting. If you’re still not convinced, consider this:
- A 504 plan is good option for a child who isn’t eligible for services under IDEA. If your child doesn’t meet the letter of the law to get special education services and still has a disability that limits his major life activities, don’t turn down the chance to help him! A 504 Plan can still put support into place.
- A 504 plan can make informal accommodations more formal. If you’re lucky enough to have a supportive teacher and school who are making changes for your child already, the 504 Plan is a way of making sure everybody knows about those accommodations. The plan makes them formal and ensures that they will be used consistently in all of your child’s classes.
A 504 Plan isn’t a necessary stepping-stone, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used as one. If your child starts to struggle in school with the accommodations in place, there’s no reason you can’t ask to come to the table to talk about whether an IEP might be the appropriate next step.
Keep the end goal in mind: You want your child to have the support he needs to be successful, right?
Don’t diss the 504—it might be exactly what you’re looking for!