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Legal Module

Comparing Section 504/ADA to the IDEA

There are several significant differences between the IDEA and Section 504/ADA as related to services for students with disabilities. These include:

  • At the K-12 level, a team of professionals makes decisions about and for the student. This may include the plan of study, notifying teachers about the disability, and arranging accommodations. At the postsecondary level, it is up to the student to self-disclose the disability to the institution, and, if necessary, to a faculty member. It is up to the student to sign up for the proper courses in a plan of study and to maintain satisfactory academic standing. It is up to the student to initiate and follow through on requests for accommodations.
  • At the K-12 level, the school district must pay for all special education services and ensure that these are provided in an appropriate setting. At the postsecondary level, it is the responsibility of the student and/or his or her family to assume the costs for tuition and other related fees (e.g., student activity fees). If the institution provides services that go beyond those required under Section 504, it may charge additional fees. The institution cannot charge the student for reasonable accommodations and auxiliary aids.
  • At the K-12 level, education may be modified and individualized according to the student’s needs. At the postsecondary level, course work does not need to be modified, and special education services are not provided.

The following chart highlights many of the key differences in the laws and the responsibilities of students and the institution. Note that at the college level, key responsibilities shift to the student.

Table 1. Responsibilities under IDEA versus Section 504/ADA
Issue Responsibility: K-12 Level Responsibility: Postsecondary Level
Identification School Student
Assessment School Student
Programming Placement Team Student/Institution
Advocacy Placement Team Student
Decision Making Placement Team Student
Transition Planning Placement Team Student

Adapted from:

Brinckerhoff, L.C., Shaw, S. F., & McGuire, J. M. (1993). Promoting postsecondary education for students with learning disabilities: A handbook for practitioners. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.


Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, PL 108-446, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as Amended, Section 504, P. L. 93-112, 29 U.S.C. §794 (1998).

Permission is granted to copy this document for educational purposes; however, please acknowledge your source using the following citation:

UDI Online Project. (2010). Legal Module. Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability, University of Connecticut, Storrs. http://www.udi.uconn.edu/index.php?q=content/legal-module