If you think your child needs special education services, you have to follow a legal process to make it happen. This process can be confusing. It can involve several laws. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the most important one to understand.
As the nation’s special education law, IDEA provides rights and protections to children with disabilities and to their parents. Learning your rights under IDEA can make it easier for your child to get the help he needs (and is legally entitled to) at school.
The Purpose of IDEA
IDEA has been amended several times since Congress first passed it in 1975. (At that time it was called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.) The essential purpose of IDEA hasn’t changed, though. Its primary goals are:
- To protect the rights of children with disabilities. IDEA ensures students with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), just like all other children. Schools are required to provide special education in the least restrictive environment. That means schools must teach students with disabilities in general education classroom whenever possible.
- To give parents a voice in their child’s education. Under IDEA, you have a say in the educational decisions the school makes about your child. At every point of the process, the law gives you specific rights and protections. These are called procedural safeguards.
IDEA covers kids from infancy through high school graduation or age 21 (whichever comes first).
Services Under IDEA: Who’s Eligible
Not every child with learning and attention issues is eligible for special education services under IDEA. First, a child must be found to have one of the 13 kinds of disabilities that IDEA covers. They are:
- Emotional disturbance
- Hearing impairment
- Intellectual disability
- Multiple disabilities
- Orthopedic impairment
- Other health impairment (including ADHD)
- Specific learning disability (including dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia, among others)
- Speech or language impairment
- Traumatic brain injury
- Visual impairment, including blindness
As of 2012, about 5.8 million school-age children in the United States receive special education services as a result of IDEA. More than 40 percent—roughly 2.3 million—are students identified with a specific learning disability.
Kids with disabilities don’t automatically qualify for special education services, though. In order to be eligible, a student must:
- Have a disability and, as a result of that disability…
- Need special education in order to make progress in school
If, for instance, a student has ADHD but is doing well in school, he might not be covered by IDEA.
“At every point of the process, the law gives you specific rights and protections.”
Kids who aren’t eligible for support under IDEA might still be eligible for support under another law called Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. A 504 plan can provide accommodations to help kids in school.
The First Step to Access Services Under IDEA: An Evaluation
The school should conduct a thorough evaluation if it suspects a child has a disability. The evaluation not only determines if a student has a disability. It also sheds light on what services and support that student might need. Find out how the evaluation process works.
The Next Step: Getting an IEP
If an evaluation shows that a student is eligible for special education, parents work with a school team to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP is a legal document that spells out a child’s educational goals, disabilities and the services and support that the school will provide.
The Role of Parents
You’re your child most important advocate. IDEA gives you an equal say in decisions about your child’s education. A number of procedural safeguards protect your rights.
Try not to get discouraged if the process seems complex. Little by little, you can learn more about your child’s rights. Consider talking to other parents in our community. Their experience can help guide you. You can also talk to one of our experts live.