504 Plan vs. IEP – What’s The Difference?

Children with disabilities and special needs have the right to an education that is tailored to their particular needs. Unfortunately, for people who are not familiar with New York's special education law, the special education process can be extremely complicated and daunting. This webpage helps to serve as a guide for parents with students with special needs to understand the basics when it comes to securing special education services for their child.

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The Laws Governing Special Education

There are two major pieces of legislation that govern special education law. These are Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 addresses discrimination against people with disabilities, and Section 504 of the Act specifically addresses discrimination against individuals with disabilities within federally funded programs, such as public schools.

While the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil rights law dealing with discrimination of individuals with disabilities, the IDEA is a statute that provides funding for special education programs within schools.

As Section 504 is an antidiscrimination statute, it is governed by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and schools do not receive funding for students with a 504 plan. IDEA is a set of legislation that funds special education programs, and it is administered by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS). The IDEA sets forth strict guidelines for special education funding, and recipients of federal funding under IDEA must adhere to these standards or lose their funding.

If your child receives special education services, whether under Section 504 or IDEA, it is important that you know the laws and specific rights that are granted to students with disabilities under each. Having a knowledgeable education lawyer on your side will help you ensure that your student is getting the most out of their special education experience.

What is a 504 Plan?

A 504 Plan is put into place to help a student who has a disability that significantly limits at least one major life function. The purpose of a 504 Plan is to help ensure that students with disabilities receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The plan details the services and accommodations given to the student, but there are no special requirements for the contents of the plan. While any student with a disability that severely limits at least one major life function can receive 504 Plan accommodations, the requirements for an IEP are much more rigid. A student who is not eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) may still be able to receive accommodations via a Section 504 Plan. However, not every student who qualifies for a 504 Plan would qualify for an IEP.

Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, examples of major life activities that can be impacted by a disability include:

  • Walking
  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Speaking
  • Breathing
  • Caring for oneself
  • Major bodily functions
  • Eating
  • Sleeping
  • Standing
  • Learning
  • Working
  • Bending
  • Reading
  • Focusing
  • Doing tasks with one’s hand
  • Thinking
  • Communicating

Should one (or more) of these major life functions be severely impacted by a child’s disability, the child would be eligible for a 504 Plan under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

What is an IEP?

An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is a written document that details the learning goals of a child with a disability and how special education services are used to help them achieve their goals. IEPs are given to students who fall into at least one of the thirteen disability classifications outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and such a disability must affect the student’s academic performance or ability to learn in a general education environment. IEPs are governed by the IDEA, which lists specific requirements for any child who has an IEP. Schools receive federal funding under IDEA for special education programs, and any school receiving IDEA funds must adhere to strict guidelines when it comes to evaluating, creating, and updating an IEP plan. All IEPs must be put in writing and have the following components within the plan by law:

  • The present academic and functional performance of the child.
  • Specific education goals for the academic year.
    • How such goals will be monitored for progress.
  • Services to be given to the student
  • Timeline of services (start date, end date, frequency, etc.)
  • Environmental accommodations.
  • Modifications to the learning path.
  • How the child will participate in standardized testing.
  • Inclusion in general education classes and
  • Transition services (for students 16 and older).
  • How the student will participate in the general education setting, and if not, why the student is being excluded, and the plan to maximize their time with non-disabled peers.

Additionally, there are strict rules regarding who is involved in the IEP process and how often IEPs are evaluated. An IEP team should include a child’s parent/guardian, a minimum of one (1) of the child’s general education teachers, a minimum of one (1) of the child’s special education teachers, a psychologist or specialist that can interpret the results of evaluations, and a district representative with authority over special education services. Each time a child’s IEP is discussed, it is legally required that the entire IEP team be present at the IEP meeting.

Individualized Education Plans come with strict guidelines and rules that can have very complex interpretations. Therefore, it is important to have a knowledgeable New York State education lawyer on your side to make sure your child’s rights are not being overlooked.

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Differences between IEPs and 504 Plans

While IEPs and 504 Plans both have the goal of fostering a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), there are many key differences between the two.

Governing Laws

IDEA is a grant statute that provides funding to public schools for special education services, so long as the academic institution abides by the strict guidelines set forth in IDEA. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil rights law, with Section 504 detailing the discrimination of individuals with disabilities within federally funded programs, including public schools.


To be eligible to receive an IEP, a student must have at least one (1) of the 13 disability classifications outlined in the IDEA, and such a disability must negatively impact the child’s educational performance. The eligibility requirements for a 504 Plan are much broader than the requirements for IEPs. To be eligible for a 504 plan, a child must have any disability that significantly impacts one (1) or more daily life activities. As the requirements are much more lenient, many times a child who is not eligible for an IEP is eligible for a 504 Plan.


The IDEA sets forth very specific requirements regarding who is involved in the IEP process and their participation in IEP meetings. The participant requirements for 504 Plans are much more lenient and are generally created (verbally or in writing) by individuals who are familiar with the child and their specific disability.


An IEP must, by law, be a written document with specific requirements for each section. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 does not require that Section 504 Plans be written down, but there are general guidelines on what should be included in the plan.

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