IEP or 504? Learn more about 504s

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that requires schools to serve the educational needs of eligible students with disabilities. If your child is eligible for special education services, you’ll work with a school team to develop an IEP.

Other students qualify for a 504 Plan. This plan ensures that a child with a disability identified under the law receives accommodations that will ensure their academic success and access to the learning environment.

What exactly is a 504 Plan?

An important responsibility of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is to eliminate discrimination on the basis of disability against students with disabilities. OCR receives numerous complaints and inquiries in the area of elementary and secondary education involving Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (Section 504). Most of these concern identification of students who are protected by Section 504 and the means to obtain an appropriate education for such students.

Section 504 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 (ED).

“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…”      Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.


Children with disabilities may be eligible for special education and related services under Section 504. That’s because Section 504s definition of disability is broader than the IDEA’s definition. To be protected under Section 504, a student must be determined to:

have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; or

Individualized Education Plan – IEP

The IEP is both a document and a process. Below is a quick overview of the purpose and function of an IEP.

The IEP has two general purposes:

  • to set reasonable learning goals for a child, and
  • to state the services that the school district will provide for the child.

Who develops the IEP?

  • The IEP is developed by a team of individuals that includes key school staff and the child’s parents. The team meets, reviews the assessment information available about the child, and designs an educational program to address the child’s educational needs that result from his or her disability. Want the specifics of who you’ll find on an IEP team? Read the detailed IEP Team page.

When is the IEP developed?

  • An IEP meeting must be held within 30 calendar days after it is determined, through a full and individual evaluation, that a child has one of the disabilities listed in IDEA and needs special education and related services. A child’s IEP must also be reviewed at least annually thereafter to determine whether the annual goals are being achieved and must be revised as appropriate.

What’s in an IEP?

Each child’s IEP must contain specific information, as listed within IDEA, our nation’s special education law. This includes (but is not limited to):

  • The child’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, describing how the child is currently doing in school and how the child’s disability affects his or her involvement and progress in the general curriculum.
  • Annual goals for the child, meaning what parents and the school team think he or she can reasonably accomplish in a year.
  • The special education and related services to be provided to the child, including supplementary aids and services (such as a communication device) and changes to the program or supports for school personnel.
  • How much of the school day the child will be educated separately from nondisabled children or not participate in extracurricular or other nonacademic activities such as lunch or clubs.
  • How (and if) the child is to participate in state and district-wide assessments, including what modifications to tests the child needs.
  • When services and modifications will begin, how often they will be provided, where they will be provided and how long they will last.
  • How school personnel will measure the child’s progress toward the annual goals.

Can students be involved in developing their own IEPs?

  • Yes, they certainly can be! IDEA actually requires that the student be invited to any IEP meeting where transition services will be discussed. These are services designed to help the student plan for his or her transition to adulthood and life after high school. Lots of information about transition services is available on our Transition to Adulthood page, including how to involve students in their own IEP development.

To learn more about any of these programs and services or to make referral, please call the Family Information Center at 1-800-578-8750 or apply online.