504 Plans, explained.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a federal law designed to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities that receive Federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education.

Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act was the first disability civil rights law to be enacted in the United States. It 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.”

From Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Bold, mine.

The goal of 504 plans is for students to be educated in regular classrooms along with the services, accommodations, or educational aids they might need.

What is a 504 plan?

You may hear parents or school staff say things like “Oh, he has a 504.” Using the term “504” is an abbreviated way of saying 504 plan or section 504 plan.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act has been around since 1973.

504 Plans are based on Section 504, a piece of federal legislation. Section 504 is a federal law that protects the civil rights of persons with disabilities.

The Act prohibits any organization that receives federal funds from discriminating against otherwise qualified individuals because of a disability. School programs and activities are subject to Section 504.

A 504 plan is just what it says. It is written, legally-binding documentation that details how the school is going to provide accessibility, so that a disabled child can access their public education.

An IEP details what special education a child will receive. A 504 Plan is about access, not special education.

Students who meet the eligibility guidelines will have a 504 Plan developed for use in school and after school activities.

The Plan specifies the nature of the impairment, the major life activity affected by the impairment, accommodations necessary to provide access based on the student’s needs, and the person(s) responsible for implementing the accommodations.

Parents are encouraged to participate in the development of the Plan.

504 Accommodations should “level the playing field” for the student.

What Qualifies for a 504 Plan?

Please note–this post will not explain to you how to get a 504 plan. I have a separate post for that. This is just to explain what one is, so you can decide if you wish to pursue one.

Does your child need a 504 plan? What even is one? What does it do? What can you get on a 504 plan?

As a professional advocate, I’ve seen a lot of misuse and overuse of Section 504 plans. This leads to a lot of confusion among parents. So let’s dig in. Here’s what a 504 plan should look like.

Section 504 of the the Rehabilitation Act

Section 504s are older than IEPs. Remember, the federal IEP laws were not enacted until 1975.

From Disability Rights and Education Fund:
Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act is the first disability civil rights law to be enacted in the United States. It prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal financial assistance and set the stage for enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Section 504 works together with the ADA and IDEA to protect children and adults with disabilities from exclusion, and unequal treatment in schools, jobs and the community.

A 504 Plan is just the written part–it details how the school is going to prevent discrimination against your child, as far as their disabilities. It is a list of accommodations that they will provide to level the playing field between your child and non-disabled students. It is accommodations only. If your child needs Special Education (Defined as specially designed instruction) then they require an IEP.

A 504 plan is a plan or checklist for how the school will support a student with a disability and remove barriers to learning. The goal is to give the student equal access at school. But, it’s important to note that the word “goal” is not at all like an IEP goal. No goals will be developed for your 504 plan.

504 plans are formal plans that schools develop to give kids with disabilities the support they need. That covers any disability that limits daily activities in a significant way. Accommodations don’t change what kids learn, just how they learn it. The plan is developed to remove barriers and give kids access to learning.

This Minnesota Department of Education infographic explains the process visually.

You can read more about the Office of Civil Rights and their role with 504 Plans here. They have an FAQ section.

Does Section 504 require schools to do evaluations?

Yes. The school must conduct an evaluation to determine if the student has a disability as defined under this act.

Is a Medical Diagnosis required for a 504 plan? A medical diagnosis made by your child’s doctor does not necessarily mean automatic eligibility for a 504 Plan. The role of the school is to accept the medical diagnosis and make it part of the 504 team’s overall evaluation data.

The team should take the information under consideration but it will not necessarily drive the final determination of eligibility. If you disagree with your school about eligibility, there is a 504 Due Process sequence you use to contest that decision.

Based on documented information from varied sources, decisions must be made by a group of school personnel who are knowledgeable about the child, the meaning of the data, and the placement options.

This is directly from the Department of Education website:

Recipient school districts must establish standards and procedures for initial evaluations and periodic re-evaluations of students who need or are believed to need special education and/or related services because of disability.

The Section 504 regulatory provision at 34 C.F.R. 104.35(b) requires school districts to individually evaluate a student before classifying the student as having a disability or providing the student with special education. Tests used for this purpose must be selected and administered so as best to ensure that the test results accurately reflect the student’s aptitude or achievement or other factor being measured rather than reflect the student’s disability, except where those are the factors being measured.

Section 504 also requires that tests and other evaluation materials include those tailored to evaluate the specific areas of educational need and not merely those designed to provide a single intelligence quotient. The tests and other evaluation materials must be validated for the specific purpose for which they are used and appropriately administered by trained personnel.

Periodic re-evaluation is required.

This may be conducted in accordance with the IDEA regulations, which require re-evaluation at three-year intervals (unless the parent and public agency agree that re-evaluation is unnecessary) or more frequently if conditions warrant, or if the child’s parent or teacher requests a re-evaluation, but not more than once a year (unless the parent and public agency agree otherwise).

How does Section 504 define disability and major life functions?

Under Section 504, disability is defined broadly. A student is determined to have a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment affecting a body system.

This impairment or disability must substantially limit one or more major life activities. These activities include such things as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, eating, sleeping, standing, lifting, bending, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and more.

When determining whether a student has a physical or mental impairment, the school district must not consider the improvement of a disability caused by a “mitigating measure” such as medication, hearing aids, prosthetics, mobility devices, or other means. The language on mitigating measures was added in the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. (note: ADA was revised again in 2019, so there may be differences; also, bold mine because this comes up a lot in pertaining to ADHD)

Both a 504 and an IEP?

Can a student have both a 504 and an IEP? An example of this would be a child that has dyslexia and Type 1 Diabetes. They need special education for the dyslexia but only accommodations for the diabetes.

Having a 504 and an IEP is not “illegal” as many parents and uninformed advocates may claim. Yes, you can have both. However, most special education experts agree that it is redundant and unnecessary. The child could have their diabetes accommodations listed on their IEP.

Disadvantages of a 504 Plan

There are disadvantages to 504 plans. One is that stigmas still exist.

With a 504, you don’t have Procedural Safeguards to protect you if it is not followed. Even the folks at the Office of Civil Rights (OCR, they enforce 504s) advise against having both. Putting those accommodations on an IEP will satisfy 504 requirements, per their booklet. (full booklet below)

snippet from IDEA stating some 504 protections

Please note that even though that little snippet mentions FAPE and 504 plans, please read the whole booklet that is provided below.

FAPE and 504s is not defined the same way it is for IEPs.

If you read click the “difference between 504 and IEP” link, there is another post further explaining the differences between the two.

Please know that if your child has a 504 Plan, they are not in special education. They are identified as a child with a disability and offered the discipline protections as such. But they are not in special education.

writing and written expression are important skills to be addressed in an IEP if the child needs IEP goals

Parents are not required 504 team members. This is important! A plan can be developed and changed without your input. It’s not best practice, but it is perfect legal.

504 Plan Not Being Followed

Due to a 504 and an IEP being very different, you do not have Procedural Safeguards with a 504. If a 504 is not followed, you have only a few options. You can compile an OCR complaint.

Parents should also check their state’s Department of Education website and see if there is an applicable state complaint.

What if my child just needs speech therapy?

As you can see from the snippet above, if the child is just receiving a related service, a 504 may be appropriate.

I have another post that lists several Dear Colleague and Guidance Letters. In that post, you will find a letter further explaining the issue of a child whose only need is speech therapy.

504 Plan Information

Parents often have many 504 questions, including:

I have covered all of those questions and more below. This is just a sampling of the posts I have done on 504s and accommodations. Use the search bar if there is something else you need.

My final thoughts: More and more often, I am seeing 504 plans and RTI being used as an “IEP Lite.” That is not what either item is designed for, nor its original intent. As with anything else, go with your gut feeling on this and keep advocating if your child is not receiving what they need.

I also run into school teams who automatically jump to “504 plan ADHD” when sometimes, a student with ADHD needs special education.

Sample 504 Plans

Sample-504-Plans


Section-504-Guide-from-OCR

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