What is the difference between Section 504 and IDEA?

There are significant differences between Section 504 and IDEA.  Perhaps the most significant is that Section 504 is a civil rights law, and IDEA is an educational benefit law.  Section 504 is designed to level the playing field for individuals with disabilities.  Its purpose is to ensure that individuals with disabilities have the same access to education that individuals without disabilities have. It does this by eliminating barriers that exclude individuals with disabilities from participating in protected activities, including a free and appropriate public education.  As an educational benefit law, IDEA offers additional services and protections for those with disabilities that are not offered to those without disabilities. 

These laws are also distinguished by their different eligibility requirements and the benefits they provide.  The definition of a disability is much broader under Section 504 than it is under IDEA.  All IDEA students are covered by Section 504, where as not all Section 504 students are protected under IDEA.  An IEP, which is provided to students covered by IDEA, must be tailored to the child's unique needs and must result in educational benefit.  However, a Section 504 Plan provides accommodations based on the child's disability and resulting weaknesses, but does not require academic improvement. 

Additionally, fewer procedural safeguards are offered to children and parents under Section 504 than under IDEA. 

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil rights law designed to eliminate discrimination on the basis of disability in any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.  Section 504 guarantees certain rights to individuals with disabilities, including the right to full participation and access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to all children regardless of the nature or severity of the disability.  Specifically, 34 C.F.R.§104 states:

"No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States... shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."  

Section 504 requires the provision of appropriate educational services; services that are designed to meet the individual needs of qualified students to the same extent that the needs of students without a disability are met.  Essentially Section 504 was designed to "level the playing field," to ensure full participation by individuals with disabilities.