This is a primer on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The IDEA provides that a child with a disability that adversely affects educational performance is entitled to special education services. A person who is eligible for services under the IDEA is protected under Section 504, but the converse is not necessarily true.
The Rehabilitation Act, including Section 504, is a civil rights law. Section 504 is similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), except that the ADA expands the application of the law somewhat farther than Section 504. There are few protections and benefits to children with disabilities under the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act outside of accessibility to buildings and modifications and other accommodations in testing.
Eligibility for special education services under the IDEA is not assured simply because one has a specific disability. Eligibility is determined on a case-by-case basis, depending upon educational performance, so that two children with the same disability may find that one is entitled to services under the IDEA and the other might be entitled only to the benefit of a 504 Plan.The major difference is that Section 504 does not entitle a child to an Individualized Education Program (as required by the IDEA) designed to provide the child with educational benefit and designed specifically for that child’s educational challenges.
This is owing to the purpose of the Rehabilitation Act, which is to protect disabled children and adults from being discriminated against. There are desirable, procedural protections available under the IDEA, that are not available under Section 504. Bottom line, Section 504 includes no assurance that a disabled child will receive educational services from which she or he receives educational benefit. It merely provides that the child have access to public education as children who do not have disabilities.
There is also a difference regarding discipline. A child who receives services under the IDEA is entitled to a free, appropriate, public education, even if he or she is expelled.There is no such protection under either the ADA or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and, if a 504 child misbehaves, the child can be expelled as a regular education student usually for up to one school year.
Several school administrations feel that if a child is at grade level, then the child should not be eligible for IDEA services. I would argue that being at grade level is not sufficient if a child’s potential identified by testing suggests that mastery is to be expected. Also, if grade level scores are obtained only because of extraordinary support from out of school sources, it is fair to conclude that the child would not be at grade level without the support. For example, if a child goes to a homework session with a tutor every day after school for 60 minutes and is at grade level, we would argue the child has not demonstrated the ability to do grade level work.