When you have a child with special needs, it is important to be aware of different programs and services available for their education. When pursuing your child’s best education, you may become aware of two programs: the 504 Plan and an IEP. Both of these are very similar in that they will help your child obtain a fair education, but some key differences should be noted between the two.

What exactly are 504 Plans and IEPs? The 504 Plan was established by the Rehabilitation Act, a 1973 civil rights act, which guarantees that people may not be discriminated against because of any disability. Effectively this means that schools must provide accommodations for individuals with disabilities, as they have just as equal of a right to an education as any other citizen. An IEP, or Individualized Education Plan, is ensured by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. An IEP designs a specific instruction plan for students with disabilities. A 504 plan does not specify any instruction like an IEP does; it only guarantees that schools will accommodate children with disabilities.

There are different qualifications for the protections that these two plans grant. A 504 Plan very loosely defines groups that can benefit from their protections, describing a disability as ”something that substantially limits one or more basic life activities.” An IEP is much more precise in who can qualify, specifying 13 different categories: autism spectrum disorder, deaf-blindness, deafness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, visual impairment, specific learning disability, or other health impairment. While, generally, students with disabilities can qualify for both, there is a possibility that a child can only qualify for one. Many disabilities, such as Autism, can qualify under both of these protections, but there are some, such as ADHD, that may not qualify for an IEP but do qualify under the 504 Plan.

The differences between a 504 Plan and an IEP become much more apparent when we look in the classroom. A 504 Plan focuses more on providing accommodations for students and tearing down any barriers that can prevent a fair education. This can include requiring the school to give more time to finish coursework, preferential seating in the classroom, and technologies to assist instruction like auditory supplements. An IEP, on the other hand, specifies the instruction that a student will receive in their education. It puts forward a plan that considers the student’s disability and the best way to educate around that disability. Special education teachers and less-restrictive environments can be provided through an IEP.

While it may not seem relevant to a parent, it is useful to know how funding works between these plans and the schools. A 504 Plan does not provide any additional funds to schools but may instead penalize them if they do not comply with their services. IEPs, however, can provide additional funding to schools that enroll students benefiting from an IEP, with the intention of this money directly assisting in the programs and services laid out by the IEP.

It’s easy to confuse the 504 Plan and the IEP, as they both cover students with disabilities and provide services & programs to supplement their education. Regardless of this confusion, it’s important to know the differences, so you know how best to navigate these programs and see how they interact for your child’s best academic opportunities.