Education Series: The Education of Students with Disabilities

If you have concerns about a child’s access to education services you can contact us to speak with an attorney free of charge.

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IEPs and 504 Plans: What’s the Difference?

Both IEPs and 504 plans are designed so that qualifying students receive a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE). Both can include modifications, accommodations, and related services for the student.

  • An IEP may be appropriate if a student is having difficulty learning and needs specialized instruction.
  • A 504 plan may be appropriate if a student does NOT need specialized instruction but DOES need accommodations or modifications to programs, facilities, or testing.

All students eligible under the IDEA are also protected by Section 504, but the reverse is not true. A student with diabetes or other medical condition who needs frequent medical monitoring to participate in school, but who does not otherwise need specialized instruction or other modifications, would be eligible for a 504 Plan but not an IEP.

The IDEA contains rights and protections (including procedural safeguards) for students with IEPs and their parents or guardians, rights that are not granted to students with 504 plans. Because of these legal protections, IEPs may be seen as more ‘burdensome’ for a school district to implement. This can result in students being pushed towards a 504 plan when they actually qualify for an IEP.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a broad civil rights law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination in a wide range of settings including public and private schools (but not religious schools*). Although the ADA does not have provisions specifically related to education, parents, students, staff, and visitors with qualifying disabilities can request accommodations under the ADA in order to have equal access to school activities. For example, schools must be physically accessible, and provide interpreters and accessible materials for those who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind, or have low vision.

For more information visit: ADA Q&A: Back to School (Pacer Center)

* While the ADA does not protect students with disabilities in religious schools, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act does cover some but not all religious schools.

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Front page of The Education of Students with Disabilities flyer

This flyer is based in part on resources developed by the Parent Information Center of New Hampshire.


Additional Resources


We provide information, advice, and legal representation in several areas involving children’s education including special education, school discipline and the unlawful use of restraint and seclusion.


Disability Rights Center – New Hampshire is a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating barriers for people with disabilities across New Hampshire. DRC is the federally designated protection and advocacy agency for New Hampshire and has authority under federal law to conduct investigations in cases of probable abuse or neglect.

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