Being Pushed into an IEP: Ableism or Access?

By Alyssa Reign Simmons

When a student is already navigating the symptoms of their disability, it is exhausting to have to face various other hardships. One of the most difficult situations that students with disabilities have to endure is fighting the education system when it fails to adequately accommodate them. The special education system was implemented so it could suit the unique needs of and accommodate individuals who have disabilities and require special educational assistance. When it is implemented incorrectly, the ways in which the school chooses to accommodate have a lasting effect on their students.  Students’ accommodations in grade school, for example, will later reflect on their abilities and progress throughout their future.

            The two most recognized systems set in place in the special education system for students with disabilities are the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act Plan (504). The difference between the two is that an IEP is a written document for all students who require special education services and modifications. Whereas, 504 is a plan that accommodates students who can learn within a general education environment with stated accommodations.  For example, a student with an IEP may spend some or all of their school day in a special education class. A student with a 504, however, might need an accommodation to sit in front of the class and to access larger print texts, but can otherwise matriculate through general education classes.

            If the student would do just fine in general education with few accommodations, then they should be offered a 504.  It is problematic when schools jump to offering an IEP before fully assessing the student’s academic needs just because of the student’s need for accommodations. One reason this might happen is simply because of negligence in doing a proper assessment.  However, sometimes this happens for economic reasons. IEPs are funded by the government whereas 504s come out of the school’s pocket.

            Sadly, students and their families are often open to taking the first thing that is offered to them when it means that the student is getting any services at all. Unfortunately, many families do not necessarily understand the repercussions of receiving an IEP when one is not needed, including the permanence on the students’ record.

            I have personally encountered this experience when I entered high school. In my middle school years, I had a 504 plan. However, once I got to high school, school administrators repeatedly suggested that I get an IEP instead. The administration felt it would “better accommodate my high school experience”. They were ready to engage in the IEP process. Fortunately, I had an advocate that was knowledgeable about the differences between IEPs and 504s and how it would affect me in the long-run. Because of this, the school was unsuccessful in giving me an IEP, and I stayed in general education with some accommodations.

            Not every student is able to advocate for themselves or have someone advocate for them. Everyone is not always given the same information to clearly understand the situation and what their options are. Although IEPs are beneficial for some students, schools and administration should be required to inform students and their families of all of the factors that are involved in writing up an IEP, what it entails, and what it would mean for a students’ future. Families should be able to make an informed decision that will benefit the student and their educational experience.

            I ended up having a successful high school experience and am currently doing really well as a freshman in college. I believe that had I been given an IEP, I would have faced difficulties throughout high school. My chances of getting into college and my experience in college might have been affected.

One of the problems with having an IEP is stigma. Some administrators, teachers, and peers treat students with IEPs poorly resulting in a lowered self-esteem. These students also often face lowered expectations and fewer opportunities. I think it is important to assure that students with disabilities across the board are not treated as if they are less worthy than non-disabled students. Further, there are so many issues with the special education system that need to be addressed for students who do need IEPs. In the meantime, we should make sure that students who could benefit from the education system with just a 504 are not pushed into getting an IEP.

Alyssa Simmons, Coelho Law Fellow 2019-2020

Image Description: Headshot photo of Alyssa Simmons, Coelho Law Fellow 2019-2020. Alyssa is wearing a pink blouse and smiling at the camera.

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