Differences Between Section 504 and IDEA

Parents of children with disabilities are likely to encounter IDEA special education regulations as well as Section 504 requirements in public schools. What are the similarities and 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.
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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 (Individuals with Disabilities Act) is an education law act 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

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 of conditions that could be potentially disabling according to Section 504.

In contrast, IDEA regulations define disability as one of 13 specific diagnoses (outlined below.) In some cases, IDEA details the 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.

Section 504 requires that a person's mental or physical disabilities limit at least one life activity. These include:

  • Walking
  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Speaking
  • Breathing
  • Learning
  • Working
  • Ability to participate in self cares
  • Ability to perform manual tasks

IDEA, in contrast, a child must have one of the following diagnoses:

You can learn more about special education eligibility classifications by state.


Procedural Safeguards Are Substantially Different

Section 504 requires schools to provide notice to parents regarding 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 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. With IDEA, re-evaluations are required to take place at least every three years. A meeting is required before any change in placement.

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. A meeting is not required before a change in placement.


Summary of Differences

As noted, there are many specific similarities and differences between Section 504 and IDEA, but perhaps the bottom line is the purpose of the law, whether it is the civil rights law of Section 504 or the educational act law of IDEA. Section 504 guarantees access for a child with a disability whereas IDEA is aimed at guaranteeing the success of a child living with a disability. IDEA often requires substantial modification of learning material relative to Section 504.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Education. Protecting Students With Disabilities.

  2. Individuals with Disabilities Act. Sec. 300.8 Child with a disability.

  3. DOE. Questions and answers on IEPs, evaluations, and reevaluations.

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.