Several years ago, I published a post that was all about transitioning to a 504 Plan before graduation, which I claimed was the best advice I had received about college transition and low vision. While it seemed to make sense at the time and I touted this advice at several events, this advice ended up not being particularly helpful, and ended up causing a lot of chaos in my final weeks of school for a document that ended up drastically changing as my diagnoses and medical condition evolved, and I have had many people ask me why I shared this advice both online and in real life. Instead of deleting this post and pretending it never existed, today I will be sharing my updated thoughts on changing from an IEP to a 504 plan as a student with low vision, and what I should have done instead.
FIRST, WHAT IS A 504 PLAN?
A 504 plan is a legal document that ensures people with disabilities or chronic illnesses can receive reasonable accommodations for their condition in the classroom or workplace. The exact accommodations that a student receives for their 504 Plan may vary, but can consist of the use of assistive technology, receiving breaks, permission to carry medical items, and others. 504 Plans prohibit school and workplace officials from discriminating based on disability, and students with 504 Plans are protected by the Office of Civil Rights within the United States Department of Education.
What is an IEP?
An individualized education plan, also known as an IEP, is another type of legal document that ensures people with disabilities or chronic illnesses can receive educational accommodations in the classroom and expire the moment a student graduates from high school or when they turn 22 years old, whichever comes first. I had an IEP during most of my years in public school for low vision because I was required to have an IEP to receive accessible standardized tests and textbooks/educational materials from state agencies, and also because I needed the support of a case manager to enforce my accommodations. Students with visual impairments typically receive IEPs under the category "Visual Impairment."
Why I thought I should transition to a 504 Plan
When I started at a new high school, we met a parent who talked about how they had their older children switch from an IEP to a 504 Plan before they attended college. Some of the benefits they listed of this included:
- Assistance with creating a Disability Services file in college
- Getting accommodations approved faster
- Using the 504 Plan for on/off campus jobs
- Having the accommodations provided for an internship
- It's free to request a 504 Plan, so you should have every service you can get
As a result, I started asking my case manager if I could switch my IEP to a 504 Plan on the last day of school, because I believed this would help me in college. My case manager was resistant to do this, but I persisted and we ended up holding a meeting hours before graduation so I could get a copy of a 504 Plan. While the 504 Plan did come in handy for a situation that went down shortly before I started college, I haven't needed it in years.
- Why You Should Get A Disability Services File
- What If I Have To Report Disability Accommodation Violations?
A 504 Plan is not more useful than an IEP for Disability Services
When it came time for me to file for disability accommodations at my university, I brought copies of my 504 Plan, previous IEP, and various other forms of documentation that discussed my vision loss and neurological condition. While it was helpful to look at the newly updated accommodations in my 504 Plan, the IEP would have been just fine as we ended up discussing my previous accommodations and how they would be implemented in college. Students do not need to worry about whether they have a 504 Plan or an IEP when it comes to preparing for college, as both documents can be used to help students receive accommodations. For students who did not have an IEP or a 504 Plan, there are still several options for getting a Disability Services file, though the exact documentation required varies by university.
504 Plans can be implemented in the workplace, but I didn't need that
When I interned at a major technology company, I didn't have to provide a 504 Plan to show documentation of my disability and was automatically referred by my recruiter to an internal disability accommodations department that helped me figure out what technology configurations would work well for me. They knew I already received accommodations in college for my disability, and worked with me over email to figure out what tools I would need to be successful on my first day. Since I was familiar with sample workplace accommodations (something I learned about in college), this was a fairly easy process, and I didn't have to go looking for a bunch of paperwork.
- How I Learned To Navigate My Internship Building With Low Vision
- How To Come Up With Sample Accommodations
What I should have done instead of getting a 504 Plan
Instead of pushing to get my IEP replaced with a 504 Plan before graduation, there are a few other activities or tasks that I could have done that would have prepared me just as well for attending college the next fall with a disability. Some of the things I should have done include:
- Going over my IEP accommodations with someone and determining which ones I would need in college
- Looking at sample workplace accommodations through online sources
- Practicing self-advocacy and disclosing my disability
- Learning how to get accessible materials in college
At the time all of this went down, no one provided me with these alternative ideas, and told me that I didn't need to worry about going to college with a disability. While they were wrong about not needing to worry, since I was lacking many important skills I needed to transition successfully to college, these activities would have helped me a lot more with preparing for college with low vision.
- Ways To Practice Self-Advocacy In The Virtual Classroom
- My Talk At A Future Date: What I Wish I Learned About AT Before Starting College
- What To Know About College Assistive Technology Specialists
What if someone tells me to switch to a 504 Plan anyway?
I recognize that everyone's situation is unique, and there may be some cases where switching from an IEP to a 504 Plan before graduating could make sense. However, I am not aware of any such cases for people with visual impairments, and discovered that my expired IEP and college disability accommodations were enough to help me to be successful in higher education and beyond.
Summary of switching to a 504 Plan before college
- A 504 Plan is a legal document that allows people with disabilities and chronic illness to receive accommodations or modifications related to their disability/illness in the classroom or in the workplace
- An IEP is another legal document with more rigid criteria that allows students to receive accommodations or modifications related to their disability/chronic illness in the classroom, and expires when a student graduates high school or turns 22, whichever comes first
- A common belief is that having a 504 Plan is beneficial for receiving disability accommodations in college or in the workplace
- However, 504 Plans are not required for college disability accommodations, as most Disability Services files are their own standalone document
- Students can use Disability Services files to get accommodations in their internships or in the workplace
- Instead of pushing to get a 504 Plan, students should develop strong self-advocacy skills and learn more about how they can receive accommodations in college or in the workplace