By: Paul Blackstock, HeLP Clinic
Parents filing Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability claims on behalf of their children may be asked whether their child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Section 504 Plan at school. These educational tools often indicate the level of help a child requires based on the severity of the child’s medical condition(s). Although both IEPs and 504 Plans create formal plans for the child, these tools are often given different weight by the Social Security Administration (SSA).
A child is eligible for an IEP or 504 Plan by either meeting disability criteria defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), or having an impairment that substantially limits their ability to learn, respectively. IDEA lists thirteen specific disabilities for eligibility, whereas the disability definition for 504 Plans is much broader. Additionally, the child’s disability, as defined by either program, must affect the child’s ability to learn in the general education classroom. Importantly, a child who is not eligible for an IEP may still be eligible for a 504 Plan.
IEPs and 504 Plans play similar roles: they are tools to assist a child with learning deficiencies. Additionally, these tools identify a child’s specific needs. Generally, IEPs and 504 Plans detail the action plan a school’s staff members will take to assist the child’s learning. A major difference between an IEP and a 504 Plan is the educational team making the action plan. IEPs are created by a team consisting of school administrators, the child’s parents, a school psychologist or other specialist, and the child’s special education and general education teachers. By contrast, Section 504 does not require a school psychologist, or similar specialist, to consult on the child’s education plan.
The programs differ in other notable ways as well. Specifically, a 504 Plan may state that a child requires additional test time, or it may allocate classroom time for absences related to medical appointments. An IEP, on the other hand, is more specific than a 504 Plan and is legally required to contain several provisions, including but not limited to annual education goals and how the school will track the child’s progress. These are only a couple of examples that each plan is likely to include.
The numerous differences between an IEP and a 504 Plan demonstrate that, although the programs have similar goals, they have significant differences as well. Some of these differences are especially critical for a child’s SSI claim. One of the most important differences is that a child’s IEP team must include a school psychologist or other specialist. The specialist’s findings represent an acceptable medical resource for the SSA. The specialist’s report contained in the child’s IEP is often a significant piece of evidence for SSA adjudicators, because it normally identifies the child’s educational and social markers and limitations, including IQ score and ability to interact with teachers and classmates.
Other important distinctions between an IEP and a 504 Plan include program specificity and the strictness of the plan’s requirements. SSA adjudicators rely more heavily on IEPs, because they generally require greater specificity and have stricter requirements than 504 Plans. IEPs are required by law to include more specific provisions regarding the child’s disability. IEPs also must include specific provisions detailing the child’s educational needs, including special education class settings. These IEP provisions specifically describe how the child is different from other children of the same age group. By highlighting the differences between the disabled child and his or her non-disabled peers, IEPs are often critical for proving a child’s SSI claim.
 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.
 Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq.