Differences and Similarities Between Section 504 and IDEA

Comparing what federal law says about disabilities

Parents of children with disabilities are likely to encounter IDEA special education regulations as well as Section 504 requirements in public schools. Learn about the differences between these two sets of regulations and how they can affect your child's education in school, and possibly life beyond high school.

Differences in Type and Purpose of the Regulations

Girls reading in a school library.
Girls reading in a school library. Cultura RM/yellowdog/Getty Images

Section 504, a civil rights law, was historically intended to prevent discrimination by institutions receiving public funds. Institutions such as public schools, libraries, universities and colleges, and other public services are typically required to comply with Section 504 because they receive such funding in the form of grants or other government subsidies.

IDEA is an education law that requires public schools to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students with disabilities who qualify in one of the specific categories detailed in the law.

Differences in Services Between IDEA and Section 504

Section 504 requires schools to provide appropriate, reasonable adaptations and accommodations to eligible students with a disability. Schools are not required to provide over and above what is provided for typical students.

IDEA requires schools to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) based on the student's demonstrated need. Normally, student needs are determined based on evaluations and IEP team discussions. IDEA services are individualized and may include specialized instruction, therapies, and services that are not provided to other students.

The Definition of Disability for Section 504 is More Broad than IDEA

Section 504 uses broad terms to ​define disability. It includes a wide group of students with physical or mental disabilities substantially limiting a major life function. HIV, Tourette's syndrome, attention deficit disorder, heart conditions and tuberculosis are just a few examples that could be potentially disabling.

In contrast, IDEA regulations define disability as one of 13 specific diagnoses. In some cases, IDEA details exact assessment criteria for inclusion in a category. In other cases, states can specify their own criteria, but this must also be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

Procedural Safeguards are Substantially Different

Section 504 requires schools to provide notice to parents how they intend to accommodate students with disabilities. The regulations stop short of requiring parental consent. Many school districts, however, do require parent input and offer parents the opportunity to consent to or decline services.

The IDEA requires much more of districts regarding parent notice and consent. Parents are to be notified of and invited to any meetings concerning their children. They also have the right to consent or decline evaluation and services. Parents are very important to the process.

Evaluations are Required by Both IDEA and Section 504

Both IDEA and Section 504 require evaluation to determine eligibility for services. Typically, IDEA evaluations are more comprehensive than Section 504 evaluations because students' needs are usually more complex.

Section 504 evaluations are designed by the committee working with the child and are limited to the specific questions they need to address. They may be as basic as an achievement assessment, a review of student work and a physician's diagnosis.

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