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 was first passed in 1975. (At that time, it was called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.) The primary purposes of IDEA are:
- To provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to children with disabilities. IDEA requires schools to find and evaluate students suspected of having disabilities, at no cost to parents. Once kids are identified as having a disability, schools must provide them with special education and related services (like speech therapy and counseling) to meet their unique needs. The goal is to help students make progress in school. Read more about what is and isn’t covered under FAPE.
- 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. For example, one safeguard is that the school must get your consent before providing services to your child.
IDEA covers kids from birth through high school graduation or age 21 (whichever comes first). It provides early intervention services up to age 3, and special education for older kids in public school, including charter schools. (Find out how IDEA affects students in private school.)
Services Under IDEA: Who’s Eligible
Not every child with learning and attention issues is eligible for special education under IDEA. To qualify, your child’s issues must fall under one of the 13 disability categories that IDEA covers. They are:
However, having one of the 13 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 in order to make progress in school
If, for instance, a student has ADHD and is doing well in school, he 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.
As of 2015, about 5.9 million students in the U.S. received special education services under IDEA. Almost 39 percent of these students—roughly 2.3 million—qualified with a specific learning disability. Source: 2016 State of Learning Disabilities
There are steps you can take if your child is denied services under IDEA. One option is to consider a 504 plan, which provides accommodations to help kids in school. 504 plans are covered by a different law called Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The First Step to Access Services Under IDEA: An Evaluation
An evaluation gets the ball rolling under IDEA. You can request an evaluation for special education at any time. (A sample request letter can help you get started.)
If the school thinks a child might have a disability, it must conduct a comprehensive 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. Find out how the evaluation process works. And read about evaluation rights, including whether you can refuse to have the school evaluate your child.
The Next Step: Getting an IEP
After the evaluation, the school will hold an eligibility meeting to decide if your child qualifies for special education. If she qualifies, you’ll 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 and the services and support the school will provide.
The Role of Parents
IDEA recognizes that you are your child’s most important advocate. The law gives you a say in decisions about your child’s education, as well as many important rights.
To take full advantage of IDEA protections, though, you have to speak up for your child. Learn 10 simple ways to be an effective advocate for your child.
Try not to get discouraged if the process seems complex. Little by little, you can learn more about your child’s rights. This special education roadmap can help guide you. Debunk common myths about special education. And see a chart that explains the difference between IEPs and 504 plans.
If you’re just learning about evaluations, dive into our beginner’s guide to evaluations. And consider joining our community to hear from other parents about how they navigated the process.