Two federal laws, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, provide protection for public school students with disabilities. Although both laws apply to students with disabilities, not all students with disabilities qualify for the protections of both laws. Each law has specific eligibility requirements and guidelines for services.
In order to qualify for protection under either law a student must have a disability. A student with a disability is eligible for a Section 504 Accommodation plan if he or she requires accommodations in order to have equal access to school district classes and programs. For example, a student in a wheelchair may need to take the elevator in a multilevel building or to leave class a few minutes early to account for longer passing time in the hallways. A student with certain health concerns might need to be able to leave class at specified times or suddenly without a pass. However, these students may not need specialized instruction in order to make progress in the general curriculum. For that reason, they would not be eligible for special education pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
In order to be eligible for special education under IDEA a student must have a disability and need specialized instruction in order to access the general curriculum. Specialized instruction refers to a change in the curriculum content, methodology or delivery of instruction that is provided in general education classroom.
504 Plans and IEPs both require students to be evaluated and to be able to receive necessary accommodations. However, 504 Plans and IEPs have many differences. The federal and state laws and regulations concerning the development of IEPs and the evaluation of special education students is very detailed and requires each plan to address specific elements. 504 plans are not as detailed and the requirements for evaluation are not as specific.
Under both Section 504 and IDEA, students with disabilities have the right to be educated without being discriminated against. However, students with disabilities who qualify for special education under IDEA have additional rights. They have, for example, the right to stay in their current placement pending a dispute (commonly referred to as "stay put") and they have the right to certain protections when they are suspended which are not afforded students with disabilities who require 504 accommodations only.
Can a Student Qualify for Both?
It seems that almost every student who qualifies for special education under IDEA would also qualify under 504, (although not every student who is eligible for 504 would qualify under IDEA, as discussed above.) However, since IDEA provides students with greater protections and encompasses all of the rights that 504 does, students who are eligible for special education are generally provided education that is guided by an IEP, not a 504 Plan.
It is important to remember that these two laws have different purposes and different eligibility criteria. While Section 504 plans have fewer legally mandated requirements, school districts cannot use them to avoid their responsibilities to students who qualify for special education under IDEA. They should however, use 504 Plans, for students who need accommodations because of their disabilities.