As a parent of a child with a disability, you may be wondering how the school can support them, or you may have had a medical or psychological professional recommend pursuing a 504 Plan or an IEP for your child in school. What are these things? How can they help your child? How do students qualify for them? Read on for answers.
The 504 Plan
504 Plans are governed by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is a civil rights law that guarantees equal access to the educational program for students with disabilities. A 504 Plan is a legal document providing for specific accommodations (typically within the classroom, but potentially elsewhere at school) that a disabled student is entitled to receive. To qualify for one, a student must (1) have a physical or mental impairment that (2) substantially limits (3) a major life activity. Common examples of accommodations may include extra time to take tests or complete assignments, allowing the use of a “fidget” item to help your child focus in class, frequent teacher checks for understanding, or reducing the length of assignments.
There are many more accommodations that can go into a 504 Plan. Whatever accommodations are chosen, they should be reasonably calculated to address the student’s specific needs based on their disability. It is also important to realize that the inclusion of some accommodations poses the risk of additional – and potentially bigger – problems, so care needs to be used in choosing accommodations that will really benefit the student. For example, being allowed to use extra time to complete assignments may sound great, but taking too much extra time to finish assignments can result in the student’s assignments piling up and becoming unmanageable as the class moves on to future lessons. Thus, you may want to make sure certain parameters are documented in the Plan about the use of an accommodation like this one, such as allowing up to one or two additional days to complete assignments rather than leaving the time frame open.
It is also important to know that a student need not use every accommodation every single day; they are simply there for the student to use whenever needed. Failure to use a particular accommodation should not result in the school being allowed to deny its use in the future. Of course, if an accommodation remains on the student’s Plan year after year and is never used, that can be an indication that it’s not really a needed one for the student, and teachers and parents may want to discuss deleting it from the Plan. In any event, it’s important to realize, however, that the student has a legal right to use any and all of the accommodations in their 504 Plan, regardless of how often they need them.
As students go into middle and high school, it is also important to make sure students know what their 504 Plan entails and even take part in choosing the accommodations in it. As students go into those upper grades, it is helpful for them to self-advocate for the use of their accommodations. A student on a 504 Plan has a legal right to those accommodations, and the school must offer them. All of this knowledge can empower students in learning to advocate for their own rights as they get older.
“IEP” stands for “Individualized Education Plan,” and these plans are governed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IEPs are a function of the school’s Special Education program, as opposed to 504 Plans, which are outside the realm of Special Ed. An IEP is a legal document containing a detailed plan of instruction to be given to a student, along with accommodations for that student. The accommodations in an IEP are the same or similar to those in a 504 Plan; but the IEP also includes the extra support of specially designed instruction tailored to the student’s specific needs.
There are several ways in which a student may qualify for Special Ed. services (an IEP), depending on the student’s disability and particular challenges. Some students will qualify based on a clearly observable disability, such as being deaf, blind, or physically disabled. Many other students qualify based on a disability that is much less observable, such as a learning disability affecting their reading, writing or math skills, autism, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), among many other disabling conditions. Simply having a disability alone does not mean a student will require or qualify for an IEP. In general terms, to qualify for an IEP, a student must be shown to have a disability that meets criteria in the IDEA (codified in Washington State in WAC 392-172A-01035). WAC 392-172A-01035 provides a listing of the various disability categories the schools use to qualify students for IEPs, along with each category’s requirements. Once a student is found to qualify for an IEP, the school’s Special Ed. teacher (and/or other Special Ed. professionals in the school, if warranted) will create an IEP detailing the services and accommodations to be provided. Services should include instruction that is designed specifically for the individual student according to their needs. Such instruction may address deficits in reading, writing, math, organizational skills, behavior, social-emotional functioning, or other areas. If the student qualifies for speech and language, occupational (fine-motor) or physical (gross-motor) therapies, those will also be addressed in the IEP.
IEPs can continue through 12th grade, and they expire when the student graduates from high school. IEPs can last up to age 21 for students who are severely disabled or otherwise do not graduate by the typical age of 18. The IEP does not transfer to college or trade school, although students can request that these schools honor the accommodations listed in their IEP.
NOTE: THIS POST IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND DOES NOT CONTAIN ANY LEGAL ADVICE. THE INFORMATION CONTAINED HEREIN SHOULD NOT BE USED OR RELIED UPON WITH RESPECT TO ANY PARTICULAR FACTS OR CIRCUMSTANCES WITHOUT FIRST CONSULTING WITH AN ATTORNEY.