ELI5 The Major Differences Between IDEA and Section 504

As a parent or caretaker embarking on the journey to provide your child with equal access to quality education, you will come across many terms like IDEA, 504, FAPE, and ADA. It might feel overwhelming to understand the key differences between these terms and what they profess to offer, and what would be the best for your child. This article aims to educate parents/guides about the differences in what is offered by IDEA and 504, procedural differences, and implementation differences, among other things.  

A Rundown of IDEA and Section 504

Since 1975, children with disabilities have been given the right to Free, And Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) developed to meet the academic requirements laid down by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (1975). IDEA, therefore, is a federal education law that manages all special education services and provides some of the education funding required to state and local educational institutions. It guarantees special education and allied services to eligible students, with each disability having its own criteria and benchmark. 

According to a recent survey by the US Department of Education, the number of students ages 3–21 who obtained special education or connected benefits under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was 7.3 million, or the match of 15 percent of all public school students.

Nevertheless, not all students with disabilities receive benefits under IDEA, but some obtain the required services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. A civil rights law, Section 504, prohibits discrimination on the grounds of disability or prohibits moves that might lead people with disabilities from partaking in programs or activities that receive funding from federal financial assistance.

Schools or educational institutions receiving federal financial assistance funding must provide children with special needs reasonable accommodations under Section 504. The civil rights law does not require the federal government to pump in an additional fund for children with special needs, but schools receiving financial assistance may lose federal funding if it doesn’t adhere to the law. 

For many students, these accommodations and modifications are the ways to achieve an equitable educational experience and growth. A detailed comprehension of these two laws can help parents and teachers navigate successfully through school education. 

Differences in eligibility criteria and prerequisites

To receive the services and benefits of either law, the children must be identified and their eligibility determined. The criteria and benchmark for eligibility are different for IDEA and Section 504. 

IDEA covers all school-aged students from 3-21 years old, whose educational needs are determined by a multidisciplinary team comprising audiologists, speech therapists, psychologists, and special educators based on evaluations and IEP team discussions. To be eligible for IDEA and related services, students should fall under one or more disability categories.

Categories comprise autism, deaf-blindness, hearing impairments, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairments, other health impairments, serious emotional disturbance, specific learning disabilities, intellectual disability, speech impairments, deafness brain injury, visual impairments, speech or language impairments, traumatic brain injury. IDEA mandates that the school create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) based on the student’s needs. Typically, IDEA assistance is personalized and may include specialized education, therapies, and services not given to other learners.

On the other hand, Section 504 offers wider coverage. It is an umbrella law that assists with a wider range of disabilities that IDEA might disregard. The definition of disability has a larger scope under Section 504, including diseases like tuberculosis, HIV, and Tourette’s syndrome, which are not a part of the IDEA definition of disability. 

Section 504 demands that a person’s mental or physical disabilities restrict at least one life activity. These include:

  • Walking
  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Communicating
  • Breathing
  • Learning
  • Working
  • Ability to take care of self
  • Ability to complete manual chores

If your child doesn’t clear the criteria set by IDEA to receive additional support, then Section 504 may help achieve the needed support. However, it must be noted that special education is not a mandatory service under Section 504. This law requires schools to deliver suitable, reasonable adaptations and accommodations to qualified students with a disability, but they are not responsible for providing over and above what is provided for regular students. 


IDEA and Section 504 need evaluation to determine additional support and services eligibility. Usually, IDEA evaluations are more intricate than that of Section 504. A multidisciplinary team would assess the child with parental consent.

The diagnosis, if any, would be re-evaluated every three years at least. The sources to assess the child may range from talking to known people, reviewing old academic works, and consulting psychiatrists, and the information compiled would be rigorously documented.

With each re-evaluation, the needs of the student might change. To change any existing service or assistance, an IEP meeting is mandated. Parents and teachers can request re-evaluation if needed, and the state would bear the expense for the procedure.

Similarly, under Section 504, evaluation draws on details about the child from various sources and is recorded. Knowledgeable individuals make decisions about the child, evaluation data, and placement options. They address only the specific need of the student. Thus the sources may be as basic as an achievement assessment or a doctor’s diagnosis.

Unlike IDEA, here, consent from parents is not mandatory but only notifying them about the evaluation. Section 504 demands that learners be educated with their non-disabled classmates to the maximum degree possible. Re-evaluation is only periodic, and there is no provision for independent evaluation at the school’s expense. Section 504 does not need to conduct a meeting for any modification in placement.

Differences in proving FAPE

FAPE is an acronym for Free and Appropriate Education. Appropriate education would provide students with an equal learning platform regardless of their disabilities. Under FAPE, special education is designed to fit the child’s unique needs at no cost to the parents, and related services like therapy, access to AAC devices, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling services, psychological services, social services, and transportation are provided if needed. FAPE mandates states to ensure all children with disabilities receive full educational opportunities. IDEA mandates the creation of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) document in accordance with FAPE. 

Section 504 complies with FAPE to a good extent with the requirement of developing a plan, but an IEP is not required. The plan for the child doesn’t need to be penned and documented, which makes it difficult for parents to raise requests for revaluation. The student is generally placed in a general education classroom, with specialized instruction, related service, or accommodation given in the class. Students can obtain related services under Section 504 even if they don’t have any special education plans. 

Differences in Procedural Safeguards

Parents and schools may sometimes disagree on the implementation of the plan. The procedure for raising the concern as a parent is different for IDEA and Section 504. You are entitled to a fair review if your ward’s needs are overlooked. Read here for more on the process of raising a request for review. 

IDEA offers parents more rights with consent taking, IEP meetings and ten days prior notifications in case of changes in the IEP of their child. They can also decline or approve evaluations and services. Parents are entitled to an impartial hearing with a neutral officer who would assess their case in case of discrepancy. While the procedure continues, the student will continue with their in-place IEP until resolutions are reached. 

Section 504 directs schools to notify guardians about how they plan to accommodate learners with disabilities. There is no regulation for needing parental consent before an evaluation, change in placement, or assessment, but only a notification. In case of dissatisfaction from the parent side, they can participate in the hearing process and be represented by a legal counsel. Schools usually appoint an officer for an impartial hearing. While the procedure goes on, the changes recommended by the school will be carried out; there is no stay-put provision. Outside this, due procedure particulars are left to the discretion of the local education department and the school.

IDEA504 plan
DescriptionAn outline or plan for a child’s special education at school.A law that requires the schools to outline or plan for how the school will assist in learning and provide the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for students with disabilities. 
Who the law applies toThe Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal special education law for children and students with disabilities.Section 504, a part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a federal civil rights law to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities.
Who’s eligibleTo be eligible for an IEP under IDEA, the student must have one or more of the 13 disabilities listed. The disability must hinder the child’s academic performance and the ability to learn from the general education curriculum.  
1. Autism
2. Deaf-Blindness
3. Deafness
4. Emotional Disturbance
5. Hearing Impairment
6. Intellectual Disability
7. Multiple Disabilities
8. Orthopedic Impairment
9. Other Health Impairment
10. Specific Learning Disability (SLD)
11. Speech-Language Impairment
12. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
Visual Impairment
Section 504 has a broader definition of disability when compared to the 13 set by IDEA. For children who cannot clear the criteria Set up by IDEA to receive assistance, but still have disabilities that affect their academics, Section 504 will help them in getting the support they need. 
What the child gets:IDEA mandates the creation of an IEP, which needs to be written down and recorded. The IEP will include these points:
• The child’s current levels of academic and functional performance.
• Yearly education goals for the child and how the progress will be tracked.
• The services the child will get including special education, and related, additional services.
• The timing of the sessions, timetables, frequency of the service
• Any accommodations
• Any modifications 
• How the child will be evaluated and assessed
• How the child will be fitted in general classrooms and school activities
The 504 plan doesn’t have to written down, but the plan will include:
• Specific accommodations, supports, and services for the child.
• Names of who will provide the service.
• Name of the person who is responsible for the implementation and supervision. 
Notice and consentFor the child to be evaluated, the parents need to give consent in writing. Parents have the right to decline or accept IEP or any other services. Furthermore, if the school wants to change placements, they have to inform the family in writing. Notice is only required for IEP changes, meetings, and evaluations.  In case the parents are unhappy with the changes they are entitled to fair hearing and representation. For evaluation, the school needs to inform the parents. In case of a major change in placement, the parents must be notified. The notice doesn’t have to be in writing, but most do. Here as well the parents are entitled to a fair hearing but the final decisions are left to the discretion of the local educational department. 

Reviews and revisionThe team reviews IEP at least once a year. The child and plan must be reevaluated every three years to determine if the services are needed. The rules vary state by state. Typically, a 504 plan is reviewed every year and a reevaluation is done every three years or when required.

Conclusion of the differences

The differences and similarities between IDEA and Section 504 live in the minute details of the educational and civil rights laws. IDEA offers services that would aid your child’s educational needs, guaranteeing academic success and is funded and mandated by the federal education department. IDEA also has a wider scope of parental rights, making them a key player in the procedure. The child’s entitlement to IDEA ends when they graduate from high school with a regular diploma or reach the age of 22. 

Section 504, on the other hand, will help your child in college, the workplace, and continuing life without discrimination. Section 504 guarantees access without discrimination and cover several areas, including schooling, employment practices, accessibility, health, welfare, and social services.

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