IEPs and Section 504 Plans – What’s the Difference?

The staff at our Parent Training and Information Call Center is frequently asked to explain the differences between an IEP (Individualized Education Program) and a Section 504 accommodation plan. We agree that it can be confusing, so here is a short primer on some key points:

Legal Framework

An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a written statement of a student’s educational program designed to meet a child’s individual needs. Every child who receives special education services must have an IEP. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA) at the federal level, and, at the state level, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 71B outline the process for how to develop an IEP. Section 504 plans get their name from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal law designed to prevent any student with a disability from discrimination due to their disability. 504 plans ensure access – by providing students with disabilities with appropriate accommodations and/or services so they can receive a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE) along with their non-disabled peers. Both laws mandate that the school evaluate a student for any area of suspected disability without delay to ensure the student can receive a “free and appropriate public education” along with their non-disabled peers.


Under the federal and state special education laws, a student is deemed eligible for an IEP after a two-pronged test:

1) Does the student have a recognized disability?
2) Is the student not making effective progress because of the disability, or Does the student need specialized instruction and/or related services to make effective progress in the general curriculum?

If the answer to both tests is “yes”, an IEP is required. If not, a Section 504 plan may be considered.

To be eligible for individualized assistance under Section 504, a student must have a disability that “substantially limits” one or more “major life activities” (very broadly defined). The major difference between a 504 plan and an IEP is that, for a 504 plan, the student does NOT need specialized instruction to make effective progress. Instead, the student may need only accommodations (such as additional time, special seating, or sensory breaks) and/or related services (such as a reading program, speech and language services, or occupational therapy) in order to access the general curriculum. It is important to note a child who is on an IEP is automatically protected under Section 504. In most cases, there is no need for two plans, as any needed accommodations and related services are typically included in the IEP.


Some people believe that a student on a 504 plan will always be placed in a regular education classroom, and that students on IEPs are placed in separate classrooms. This is not always the case. While some students on IEPs may need instruction in a separate setting, both laws embrace the presumption of “Least Restrictive Environment” which requires that students with disabilities should be educated in classrooms with non-disabled students to the extent possible. Ultimately, with both plans, the placement decision is made based on how best to achieve a “free and appropriate education” according to the student’s individual needs.

Legal Protections

Under federal and state special education laws (IDEA and MA Chapter 71B), parents have the right to independent educational evaluations and the right to keep their child in his/her current program if they disagree with proposed changes in services or discontinuance of an IEP. These are known as “stay put” rights, which can be enforced with dispute resolution options such as mediation or a full special education hearing. Section 504 prohibits retaliatory acts by school districts and provides the right to appeal the school district’s actions the identification, evaluation and placement of a student with a disability.

Bottom Line

For a student who is not eligible for an IEP because his/her disability does not require specialized instruction, but still needs accommodations and/or related services in order to access the curriculum, a Section 504 plan may be just what is needed.

To learn more about the school district’s obligation to provide FAPE to students with disabilities, please see the Office of Civil Rights July 2016 “Dear Colleague Letter” and Resource Guide or visit the OCR website.