What every parent should know...

What is IDEA?

IDEA is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Established in 1990, this United States Federal Act ensures that all qualifying individuals in need of special education and related services will receive it, and it also lays out the guidelines for students receiving special education. Any state that receives Federal funding for education is subject to IDEA, and must provide students with a Free Appropriate Public Education, or FAPE. Students under IDEA are also entitled to being taught in the Least Restrictive Environment, or the LRE. IDEA has been improved and amended several times, most recently in 2004. Under IDEA, students receiving special education and related services are covered from preschool through age 21, and the services should be designed to meet the unique needs of the student. Each student that qualifies for special education under IDEA will have their own IEP, or Individualized Education Plan. This IEP will have accomplishable goals and will be amended as the student progresses. Under IDEA, by the time students are done with their education, they should be prepared for secondary education, employment, and/or independent living.

The 14 categories of disability under IDEA are:

  1. Autism
  2. Deaf-blindness
  3. Deafness
  4. Developmental delay
  5. Emotional disturbance
  6. Hearing impairment
  7. Intellectual disability
  8. Multiple disabilities
  9. Orthopedic impairment
  10. Other health impairment
  11. Specific learning disability
  12. Speech or language impairment
  13. Traumatic brain injury
  14. Visual impairment

What is a 504 Plan?

A 504 Plan is for students who may not qualify for special education under IDEA, but may still need some special accommodations in the classroom. It refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which essentially states that no one with a disability can be excluded from federally funded school activities or programs because of their disability. In this case, a disability is defined as "a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities." This can include an illness, physical disability, learning problem, etc. Examples of accommodations for students with 504 Plans are: a wheelchair ramp at school, a personal recorder to record the teacher speaking, or a nut-free environment.

Let's break it down: IDEA vs. 504


  • IDEA: federal law that provides specialized instruction and services for students who qualify for special education
  • 504: civil rights law that provides students with special needs the ability to participate with their peers as much as possible

Who is eligible?

  • IDEA: students age 3-21 whose disabilities do not allow them to benefit from general education
  • 504: students with a physical or mental impairment that limits one of more life activity


  • IDEA: states receive Federal Funding
  • 504: no additional funding provided


  • IDEA: provides individual attentions and supports in addition to what is provided to the general education classroom
  • 504: requires schools to minimize barriers that would prevent students from participating fully in programs offered in the general curriculum

Requirements for delivering services

  • IDEA: requires a written IEP (Individualized Education Plan) documenting specific content to be learned and goals to be accomplished
  • 504: does not require an IEP but does require some form of written documentation

Due Process

  • IDEA: district must provide hearings to parents who do not agree with their child's education plan
  • 504: district must provide a grievance procedure to parents who do not agree with their child's education plan

Which plan is right for my child?

The goal of a 504 Plan is to level the playing field for that student to be able to participate fully in school activities. 504 Plans provide accommodations so the student will be able to learn barrier-free. IDEA, however, is much more concerned with getting students with special needs the special services they need and helping them accomplish their educational goals. Students with IEPs require much more assistance than simple accommodations, and will often work at their own pace, even if they are in an inclusion classroom setting. Think about your child's educational progress and which plan's accommodations would be more appropriate for their academic success.