Differences Between Section 504 and IDEA

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • There are two separate laws that protect the rights of children with disabilities in school. One is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the other, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. While both aim to help students with disabilities, the two laws do so in different ways.


    One of the myths surrounding these laws is that children eligible for services under IDEA are always placed in special education classes while children qualifying for services under Section 504 are kept in mainstream classrooms. But this isn’t necessarily true. IDEA requires that students be placed in the least restrictive environment, which means that, whenever possible, students should be integrated into mainstream classes.

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    Definitions of Disability

    Children on the autism spectrum range from highly functioning to severely disabled. The first step in determining if your child is eligible for services under IDEA or Section 504 is to understand the differences in how each define a disability.


    Section 504 states, “Any person who has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more life activities, has a record of such impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.


    IDEA describes a disability as a child “with mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments or specific learning disabilities and who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.”

    Because the Section 504 definition of a disability is much broader, many times students who have Asperger’s syndrome or are considered high functioning will receive services under this law because they do not meet the stricter definition of disability under IDEA.


    Differences in Services

    Both Section 504 and IDEA provide accommodations and modifications in testing, programs, building accessibility. Section 504 does not provide a “individualized educational plan” (IEP) that meets the unique needs of a child and works to help them become ready for employment and independent living.


    Section 504 is a civil rights law. It helps protect children with disabilities from discrimination in school. Children protected under this law have fewer rights and protections than those protected under IDEA. While both provide accommodations and modifications that may not be available to children without disabilities, IDEA goes further. For example, both the Section 504 and IDEA may provide extra time for test taking, IDEA also works to identify specific learning differences and provide special instruction to help the child better learn the information. In other words, Section 504 provides equal access to education, while IDEA works to increase the educational benefit for children with disabilities.

    If your child is found eligible under IDEA, an IEP will be created. This document provides details on specific services, including the goal of the services, how long the services will be provided and how each goal will be measured. Services can include speech therapy, extra reading assistance, a classroom aide, occupational therapy or other services deemed necessary for your child to learn and succeed.


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    When Parents Don’t Agree

    Whether your child has a Section 504 or an IEP, the document outlining accommodations, modifications and services is a legal document. Schools and teachers are required to follow it. For both the 504 and IEP, schools are required to conduct impartial hearings if you disagree with the findings of the evaluation or placement of your child. During your initial meeting, you should have been given information on where to file a complaint if you feel the school is not providing your child with the accommodations/modifications or services that are specified.


    For more information on autism and Asperger’s syndrome at school:


    8 Back to Schoo Tips for Children with Asperger’s Syndrome


    10 Tips for Managing Asperger’s Syndrome in the Classroom


    Autism and Homeschooling: The Pros and Cons of Educating Your Child or Teen at Home


    Public School and Autism: Educational Options for Your Child or Teen


    Suggestions for Classroom Accommodations and Modifications for Children with Autism


    Helping Children with Autism Make the Transition into Middle School




    “Key Differences Between Section 504, the ADA, and  the IDEA,” Revised 2008, March 2, Peter and Pamela Wright, US Autism & Asperger Association


    “School Special Education Legal Rights for Aspergers,” Date Unknown, Ella Rain, Autism.LoveToKnow.com


Published On: August 02, 2012