By Nicole Biscotti, M.Ed.
Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 Plans are documents that legally obligate schools to provide support that is specific to a particular child with a disability’s needs. If the child does not receive the modifications and accommodations detailed in this document parents and guardians have recourse through the legal system. On the surface this may seem like problem solved – kids with disabilities get a document that lays out the specific support that they need and it is legally binding.
In reality this is not what is happening in all too many cases. It can be a long and confusing road to get an IEP or 504 for a child with ADHD. Jason still doesn’t have one. ADHD is not covered as a disability under The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) from 1975, except as under the category of Other Health Impaired (OHI). Generally in order to qualify children have to have a separate learning disability that has caused them to be 1.5 years behind grade level. In Jason’s case he’s not below grade level because he doesn’t have a learning disability. He’s gifted which I dare say works to his disadvantage in terms of receiving legal protection for the support that he needs to be successful.
The majority of kids with ADHD receive modifications and accommodations under a 504 Plan from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 meaning that they receive all of their instruction in a general education classroom and do not receive transitional services to adulthood. I’ve requested an evaluation for a 504 Plan for Jason twice and both times he was denied based on the school’s evaluation. I could have pursued this by filing a grievance with the school district however based on the circumstances at the time I did not choose to do this. Whether a real or perceived fear, like many other parents, I was afraid to “push” too hard for fear of creating an adversarial relationship with the school.
Despite their technical differences from a legal standpoint, both documents play an almost identical role in the daily lives of children with ADHD at school. They both provide a combination of “accommodations” that detail changes to accessing instruction and “modifications” that provide for changes in the content of what is learned. An “accomodation” could be to allow a student to sit in an area with minimal distractions or to take sensory breaks. Examples of “modifications” would be to allow a child to create an outline rather than an essay or changing a required reading for a less complex one.
Children who have the benefit of having these documents in place have a clearly written framework to support them. Even if allowing a student additional time to complete assignments is against a teacher’s classroom policy or if they disagree with a student using the textbook during a test IEP’s and 504’s must be followed with fidelity. In an ideal world, IEP’s and 504’s are followed, and it is actually the law that they must be, however there are many cases currently in litigation over this matter. Additionally, there are many, many families that do not have the information or resources to fight this in court. We will unfortunately never have accurate data on the number of parents who feel that their child’s IEP or 504 is not being followed with fidelity.
I would like to suggest that in order for these documents to have real meaning, teachers have to have an understanding of what limitations ADHD comes with and empathy for learners working within these limitations. Overall I would prefer for a teacher to establish a positive working relationship with my son then to follow a list of supports that they may not even agree with. An IEP or a 504 is a great start. However, meaningful support lies in the willingness of a teacher to observe a child with an open heart and to have the knowledge needed to be a responsive educator. This level of collaboration with children is what will really make the difference for our children with ADHD.