Special Education and 504: They’re the same, aren’t they…?

September 12, 2016


When I was teaching and told a parent that her child did not qualify for Special Education but might instead qualify for support under Section 504, a very common response was, “What is Section 504?”  The next question was often, “How can my child qualify for this if he does not qualify for special education?”

Texas Project First provides a concise explanation, “All students who qualify for special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) are also covered by the provisions of Section 504.  However, not all students who qualify for Section 504, are eligible for IDEA services.”


To better understand this explanation, a bit of additional information is necessary.  Section 504 was originally a portion of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  This law prohibits schools that receive federal financial assistance from discriminating against individuals with disabilities.  Under Section 504 and eventually the American Disability Act (ADA), a student is considered to have a disability if he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. (Section 504 does not provide an exhaustive list of items considered to be major life activities, but instead offers a limited number of examples.)  


A key point to keep in mind is that having a disability, alone, does not automatically qualify a student under Section 504; as stated above, child’s disability must also substantially limit one or more major life activities.  After being evaluated, if a student does qualify under Section 504, then accommodations are typically put in place in order to offer the child the opportunity to participate in school academics and other activities. 


Another federal law, which eventually became known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), stipulates that if schools agree to provide specialized services to students who qualify for special education, the federal government will provide additional funding to offset the cost of providing these services. This provision of additional funding is one key difference between IDEA and Section 504.


An additional difference between these two laws is that unlike Section 504’s broader definition of “disabilities”, IDEA has thirteen specific disability categories by which a student can qualify for services.  (Individual states can create their own categories, as long as all thirteen federal categories are addressed.)


This brief explanation is by no means exhaustive. Instead, it is intended to offer a glimpse into how these two acts work both together and separately to ensure that students with disabilities receive equal educational opportunities to their non-disabled counterparts. 


Texas First Project www.texasprojectfirst.org/Sect504.html

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