In a nutshell, a 504 Plan typically provides accommodations and/or related services to a disabled student, but does NOT provide specially designed instruction. For example, the qualifying student could be provided with blood-sugar monitoring, a laptop on which to type notes, access to an elevator, or priority seating near the front of the class. If the team determines that a particular related service is needed, but the team does not consider it to be “specially designed instruction,” a 504 Plan can include those services, such as physical or occupational therapy, speech therapy, or counseling services.
The goal of a 504 Plan is to level the playing field and allow students with disabilities the same access to federally funded programs as students without disabilities. Because it is easier to qualify as a student with a disability under Section 504, it is not uncommon for a district to suggest a 504 Plan when the student does not qualify for an IEP.
A 504 Plan refers to Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 states, “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . . .”
Under Section 504, a school district is required to provide a qualifying student with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). However, the definition of FAPE in Section 504 differs from the definition under IDEA for an IEP. Here, FAPE means the provision of regular or special education and related aids and services designed to meet the student’s individual educational needs “as adequately as the needs of nondisabled students are met.”
This definition of “disability” under 504 is less stringent than the categories defined in IDEA to qualify a child for an IEP. Disability in this regard is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Included in the list of major life activities are caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. A recent amendment makes it clear that corrective measures, such as glasses, medication, walkers, etc., cannot be taken into account when determining whether the impairment substantially limits major life activities. This broadened the definition of disabled.
A 504 Plan is written when the student qualifies as disabled under 504 and has a need for accommodations and/or related services in the school setting. There are not as many specific rules or procedural requirements with a 504 Plan as compared to an IEP, but many procedural safeguards are provided, including notice requirements, FAPE, and some disciplinary protections.
So which is better? It all depends on the individual student’s needs and whether he or she would benefit from specially designed instruction.