* name changed for confidentiality
By Rachel Zurbuch, Executive Features Editor
When junior *Mary Clark was in 6th grade, she remembered going in a room at the doctor’s office for a few hours and taking tests varying from picking pictures, spelling, reading, talking to someone about what she read and more. These tests, while a little overwhelming at the time, ultimately helped Clark after she was diagnosed with ADHD.
“[Being diagnosed] was a surprise, but then I got used to it, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is actually really accurate,’” Clark said, “I was really thankful my mom had me tested.”
After her diagnosis, Clark and her parents went to her school and got her set up with a plan to help with a set of accommodations called a 504 plan.
Across America, millions of students like Clark have 504 plans or Individualized Education Plans (IEP) for certain accommodations in the classroom to help them succeed to their best ability.
According to Understood.org, a 504 plan is a list of accommodations for a student that struggles in the classroom because of any disability covered in Section 504 of a law in the US. The disabilities can range from ADHD, dyslexia, dysgrafia (a handwriting disability) and more; 504 plan disabilities also fall under behavorial problems like anxiety and depression. There is not one specific 504 plan; it is all according to the particular student. For example, some students get extended time on assignments, permission to take an assessment in a separate room, permission to type an essay instead of writing it or more, depending on each individual student’s needs.
An IEP is another plan that a student can have for accommodations in the classroom environment. According to Understood.org, in order for a student to have an IEP they must have one of the 13 disabilities listed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which range from ADHD, hearing loss, bipolar disorder, autism and more. Whichever disability they have has to affect their learning in the educational environment. The main difference between 504s and IEPs, according Department of Special Education Head Cristina Diaz, is that IEPs have specific instructions for students that involve work with teachers. Students work on specific skills for their learning process with a teacher.
Diaz explains that all qualifying students have a special education case manager responsible for writing the IEP, adjusting it, advocating for the student if needed and helping communicate with teachers about it.
“It’s really about need,” Diaz said. “504 plans or IEPs aren’t just given out to everyone. Just because you request one doesn’t mean you really need one … it’s about how a need for accommodations is affecting you within the educational setting.”
In Clark’s 504 plan for ADHD and anxiety, she is allowed to get extended time on tests and quizzes. However, this depends on the content and type of assessment. For standardized testing, she gets 50% time extra time. This means that if the SAT reading portion is 65 minutes, she would get an extra 32 and a half minutes, meaning she gets 97 and a half minutes total.
She is also allowed to take a test or quiz in a separate room from other test takers, like the science resource room or the social studies room.
“If I’m taking it in the classroom, and I’m taking so much time while all the other students are finishing up, I can get really scared and nervous,” Clark said. “Sometimes it’s nice to be in an excluded area.”
While Clark says she may not use her extended time in every assessment, she explains it’s nice to know that she has that time if needed so she can be relaxed when taking the test.
Even though the plan is known by administration, Clark isn’t sure if all of her teachers know her plan exists or what her specific accommodations are, so she usually goes to talk to them about it at the beginning of the school year.
At times, this is where some issues arise. Clark explains that sometimes teachers are doubtful she really needs accommodations and refuse to give them to her.
“Sometimes people think if you have ADHD, you don’t really need a 504 plan … or if you don’t really look like you have ADHD or something else, they think ‘Oh you’re fine; you don’t need extended time,’” Clark said. “I’ve had a teacher before who refused to give me extended time because I look ‘normal,’ [and] she got annoyed I asked for extended time, so I feel like there’s that idea about [people] having extended time that don’t really need it when they do.”
However, this is illegal for teachers to do because a 504 plan is a legal document in place for a student’s required accommodations. If an incident occurs between Clark and a teacher, Clark’scounselor talks to that teacher about her accommodations. The student services department was contacted for this story but declined to comment.
These misconceptions sometimes happen even with her friends. Clark says that it’s also sometimes hard for students to understand why she needs it.
“Sometimes my friends are like, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky you have extended time,’ but I really need it,” Clark said. “They’re jealous in some ways that I have extended time because sometimes they can’t finish a test, but I have the extended time that allows me to.”
This is something junior *Mia Dearborn agrees with; Dearborn also has a 504 plan for ADHD. While she doesn’t use it as much as she used to in school, she finds that most students don’t understand that 504 plans aren’t “excuses for special treatment.”
This is why sophomore *Nick Johnson has restraints to getting a 504 plan. Johnson has ADHD and takes medication for it but chooses not to have a 504 plan. Johnson explains that he has considered getting one, but he has not so far because he does not know if he fully needs one.
“It’s hard to decide whether you’re at a disadvantage compared to everyone else, especially considering [the fact that] I have good grades,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to know whether I should take that precaution.”
Sometimes, Johnson notices that his peers are able to finish tests a lot quicker than he is, or he’s been distracted by a problem or something else, and that’s when he considers getting a plan.
Johnson also considers ADHD an invisible illness or disorder, and he believes that it’s hard to diagnose, which contributes to the lack of understanding.
“I don’t think many students know what a 504 plan is,” Johnson said. “I think a lot of students do know what ADHD is, but they don’t understand that it can be a lot worse for some people who seek help for it.”
Clark has also seen some stigmas surrounding 504 plans, but she believes that most of her friends support her and don’t judge her regardless. She believes that sometimes people need to know that having ADHD or a 504 plan doesn’t mean they don’t have the same capabilities as others.
“There [are] probably stigmas or generalities that people see or think about individuals with IEPs or 504s, but at the end of the day, everyone has their own strengths or weaknesses, and it’s taking the person for who they are,” Diaz said.