Part 2: Understanding 504 vs. IEP
By Kate Pece, MEd
In this series of four articles, you will learn how to navigate the public school system for accommodations under a 504 plan. You can read the other parts here: part 1, part 3, and part 4.
When it comes to helping students with sleep disorders, it is easy for the parents to get lost in the lingo. The names of the programs, laws, abbreviations, and specialized vocabulary are cryptic and confusing—sometimes even to educators. So what is a parent to do?
In most cases, students with sleep disorders may be accommodated in school through a 504 plan, which is outlined in Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal civil rights law that applies in many settings, including public schools. (The law may also apply to private schools if they receive funding through a federal grant.)
Alternatively, special education may be more appropriate for students who have sleep disorders concomitant with other disabilities. An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is developed for the eligible student, as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). An IEP is a more intensive intervention than a 504 plan and is not necessary for most students.
Students with 504 plans complete the same assignments and assessments as their peers without disabilities, but with accommodations in the timing, formatting, setting, scheduling, response, or presentation. Examples include extended time for testing, copies of teacher notes/presentations, and preferential seating.
An IEP may include accommodations like those in a 504 plan, but it also changes what a student learns compared to students in the general education classroom. These modifications may include substituting regular textbooks with those using less complicated vocabulary, reducing the complexity of assignments, and adjusting tests so that they measure fewer standards than required for their grade-level peers. Only students with significant cognitive or physical disabilities require modifications of this kind.
Not only are 504 plans less intensive than IEPs, the eligibility process is simpler and usually faster. To qualify for accommodations under Section 504, an individual must have “a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Major life activities include caring for oneself, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, working, performing manual tasks, or learning.
In the school setting, a 504 plan “levels the playing field,” providing students with disabilities with equal access to their education; however, the accommodations need not maximize the students’ potential. For this reason, students with disabilities who are already performing at the level of their peers are not eligible for accommodations, as the diagnosis alone is not sufficient to create a 504 plan. There must be a significant educational impact.
Here is a parallel example. Consider two students with nearsightedness (myopia). The first student has severe myopia and cannot read anything more than four feet away. Without glasses, the student’s poor vision “substantially limits” her learning because she cannot read the board. For the student to have “equal access” to learning, she requires glasses, an accommodation.*
The other student has very slight myopia discovered through a routine exam. The student had never noticed the difference, and he not does need glasses for “equal access” to learning. Although both students have myopia, only the first student has a condition that “substantially limits one or more major life activities.”
If your child is struggling academically as a result of hypersomnia symptoms, contact the school’s 504 coordinator immediately to schedule a 504 eligibility meeting. For step-by-step advice on pursuing a 504 plan, see the first article in this series, Part 1: 504 Primer (published in SomnuSnooze on September 15, 2015)
If your child’s hypersomnia is not currently having an impact on academic performance, you should still consider notifying the school’s 504 coordinator. Although accommodations may not be necessary right now, they might be in the future. Also, if the school has documentation on the diagnosis, your child is protected from discrimination under Section 504, even if a 504 plan is not required at this time.
*A 504 plan is not required for typical myopia, although a student who is legally blind would require 504 accommodations because glasses would not give the student equal access to the curriculum.