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What is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)?

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

At a Glance

  • IDEA is the nation’s special education law.

  • Schools must find and evaluate students thought to have disabilities — at no cost to families.

  • To qualify for IDEA services, a child must have a disability and need special education to make progress in school.

To get special education services for a child, you have to follow a legal process. The most important law for this process is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 

IDEA is the nation’s special education law. It gives rights and protections to kids with disabilities. It covers them from birth through high school graduation or age 21 (whichever comes first). Parents and legal guardians also have rights under the law. 

IDEA places two big responsibilities on states and their public schools.

First, school districts must provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to kids with disabilities. And these kids must learn side by side with peers as much as possible — something called the least restrictive environment , or LRE.

Schools must find and evaluate students who may have disabilities, at no cost to families. This is known as Child Find . If a child has a qualifying disability, schools must offer special education and related services (like speech therapy and counseling) to meet the child’s unique needs. These are provided through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The goal is to help students make progress in school.

Second, schools have to give parents a voice in their child’s education. At every point in the process, IDEA gives parents specific rights and protections. These are called procedural safeguards . For example, one safeguard is that a school must get consent from parents before providing services to kids.

The reach of IDEA goes beyond traditional public schools. It includes public magnet and charter schools. The law also provides early intervention services to infants and toddlers up to age 3. Finally, IDEA may impact some students in private schools .

Dive deeper

The history and purpose of IDEA

IDEA was first passed in 1975. At that time, it was called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.

Before IDEA, it was common for states to place kids with disabilities in separate schools. Or in separate classrooms away from their peers. Their education was often poor and underfunded. Academic expectations were low. Kids with learning and thinking differences typically didn’t get the help they needed to thrive in school.

Congress passed IDEA to change this. Around the same time, other laws also passed to improve lives of people with disabilities. In 1973, Congress passed Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act , which barred disability discrimination in programs that get federal funding. Then in 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act , or the ADA, to bar discrimination in other areas of society.

Over the years, Congress has updated these laws several times. IDEA’s last update was in 2004.

See a chart that compares IDEA, Section 504, and the ADA .

Who is eligible for services under IDEA

Not every child is eligible for special education under IDEA, and having a diagnosis doesn’t guarantee eligibility. To qualify, kids must have a disability that falls under one of the 13 categories IDEA covers. They are:

  1. Autism

  2. Deaf-blindness

  3. Deafness

  4. Emotional disturbance

  5. Hearing impairment

  6. Intellectual disability

  7. Multiple disabilities

  8. Orthopedic impairment

  9. Other health impairment (includes ADHD)

  10. Specific learning disability (includes dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and other learning differences)

  11. Speech or language impairment

  12. Traumatic brain injury

  13. Visual impairment, including blindness

However, having one of these disabilities doesn’t automatically qualify a child under IDEA. To be eligible, a student must:

  • Have a disability and, as a result of that disability…

  • Need special education to make progress in school

For example, if a student has ADHD and is doing well in school, the student might not be covered by IDEA. Sometimes schools and parents disagree over whether a child is covered. When that happens, IDEA provides options for resolving the dispute .

In 2018–2019, around 7.1 million students ages 3 to 21 received special education services under IDEA. That’s 14 percent of all public school students. The most common way students qualify is with a specific learning disability. (Source:  National Center for Education Statistics)

Learn more about the 13 categories IDEA covers .

How to get services under IDEA

An evaluation gets the ball rolling under IDEA. Parents can request an evaluation at any time. And if the school thinks a child might have a disability, it must conduct an evaluation.

The evaluation not only determines if a student has a disability. It also sheds light on what services and support that student might need.

After the evaluation, the school will hold an eligibility meeting to decide if the child qualifies for special education. If the answer is yes, a school team will work with parents to develop an IEP . This legal document spells out the child’s education goals, as well as the services and support the school will provide.

If a child is denied services, there are steps parents can take .

Learn about myths surrounding IDEA and special education .

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