Mailbox: Q&As on Education Rights from the ADHD Community
We receive questions from members of the ADHD community through our ADHD Helpline and from questions submitted online. Here’s a compilation of some of the questions we receive from parents regarding their children’s education rights.
Section 504 or IDEA: What is the difference?
Question: We think our daughter could benefit from an academic plan this coming semester but we don’t understand what is the difference between Section 504 and IDEA?
Answer: There are significant differences between Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). Perhaps the most significant is that Section 504 is a civil rights law, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, is an educational benefit law.
Section 504 is designed to level the playing field for individuals with disabilities. It’s meant is to ensure that children with disabilities have the same access to education that those without disabilities have. It does this by removing barriers that keep individuals with disabilities from participating in protected activities, including a free and appropriate public education.
IDEA offers additional services and protections for those with disabilities. Services received under IDEA are often referred to as “special education.”
These laws also have different eligibility requirements and benefits provided. The definition of a disability is much broader under Section 504 than it is under IDEA. All IDEA students are covered by Section 504, but not all Section 504 students are protected under IDEA. An individual education plan, called an IEP, is provided to students covered by IDEA and must be written specifically to the student’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.
Requesting an evaluation for your student
Question: Does my child need to be physically disabled to get services? I was told ADHD might not be enough to get help at school.
Answer: Children with mental disabilities or impairments, and that includes ADHD, may be eligible for services under both the IDEA or Section 504. It’s not necessary for a child to have a physical or even an academic disability.
When parents, teachers, or healthcare providers note behavior issues in a child, an evaluation should be recommended, even when the child is performing well academically. The United States Office of Civil Rights’ Dear Colleague Letter on Obligations to Students with ADHD noted failures to refer for evaluation in cases of ADHD as a common problem that could constitute denial of free appropriate public education (FAPE) under Section 504. The OCR Letter points out that school districts must consider all potential major life activities that may be impacted by the student’s impairment, not just learning.
Question: If I request an evaluation for a 504 Plan or an IEP, doesn’t the school have to do it?
Answer: No, the school is only required to evaluate a student if the educators feel there is a significant problem affecting the child’s learning or behavior. If the school chooses not to do an academic evaluation, then it must give you a written response explaining why the educators refused to do an evaluation.
- For information on making a requeste for an academic evaluation, visit Requesting an Evaluation in Public Schools.
- For more information on your child’s educational rights visit Educational Rights.
- For information on appealing a decision, visit Appealing a School Decision.
Question: I’ve heard the letters “LRE” used, but I don’t know what that means.
Answer: LRE means “least restrictive environment,” and is a term used to mandate that students with disabilities are placed in special classes, separate schools, or positions other than in regular education classrooms only when the type or severity of the disability is great enough that even with educational aids and services the child still cannot learn or meet educational goals. The placement must also allow the disabled student to be with non-disabled peers to the greatest extent possible.
Seeking help when meeting with the school
Question: I’ve been told that an educational advocate could help me when I meet with the school for my child’s IEP meeting. What is an educational advocate and how can I find one?
Answer: An educational advocate often refers to attorneys who represent the interests of their clients or another professional trained in educational law and able to work with parents and schools to create educational plans for a student.
Federal special education law allows families to use non-lawyer advocates to assist them in IEP meetings and, in some states, in special education due process hearings. The rules for what advocates can do differ from state to state. Because there are no state or national standards that must be met, anyone can call themselves an "advocate" whether they have any specialized training and experience or not.
Those who are seeking educational advocates must take special care to determine the qualifications of anyone they are considering, whether the person is an attorney or other professional. It can be helpful to have the assistance of a special education advocate because there often aren’t enough lawyers available and/or affordable, with special education knowledge. There are many advocates available that do have training and/or experience in working with parents and schools. Some are in private practice and charge for their services. Others work for public agencies or non-profit organizations.
When seeking the help of any advocate, there are some basic facts you want to know:
- What is the advocate’s training and experience with special education law?
- How many families has this person worked with?
- Has the advocate had experience specifically in the school or school district your child is in?
- What is this person’s style or approach (i.e., does he/she accompany you to meet with the school), what information does she use (i.e., is she proficient with the Wrights Law website, and when would you need to work with a lawyer (if the advocate is not a lawyer)?
The advocate’s answers to these questions will help you get a sense of the advocate’s experience level, and gauge whether or not this person will be a good fit for the circumstances or situation requiring an advocate’s assistance. Here are four good sources to begin your search for an advocate, and information about advocates around the country.
- The U.S. Department of Education funds Parent Training and Information Centers in all the states. These centers frequently have advocates that may be able to either help train or prepare you for the IEP or due process procedures, which can mean working through appeals with the school district and possibly with the court system, or, sometimes, may provide direct help. You can find your local Parent Technical Assistance Center at the Center for Parent Information & Resources.
- The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) is another resource for an advocate or attorney. Every state has an organization that provides legal and advocacy services for people with disabilities, including special education needs. A list of NDRM Member Agencies is the place to start.
- The Council of Parents Attorneys and Advocates, which is the national organization of people and agencies that can help families in special education disputes/needs. Use the site’s Find Attorney/Advocate/Professional feature to begin your search.
- Wrights Law is the “bible” for disability rights, and its website provides a vast and rich collection of resources to help you. From that site there are links to find resources (including education advocates) in every state, and resources to help you serve as your child’s advocate.
- CHADD members share information about their own experiences and offer ideas and suggestions. Search the CHADD Resource Directory for advocates in your area or a local CHADD affiliate in your area and attend a meeting, or you can post a question in our online ADHD Community asking for ideas and suggestions.
Do you have a question for our health information specialists? Call us at (800) 233-4050, Monday through Friday, 1-5 p.m. or post your question to one of our new Online Communities for Parents of children with ADHD or for Adults with ADHD.
What is the difference between Section 504 and IDEA? How can you find an educational advocate to help you work with the school to create an academic plan for your child? We answer some common questions about educational rights from ADHD community members. Keep reading for information from our Health Information Specialists.