Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): What you need to know
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.
Having a diagnosis doesn’t guarantee that a child qualifies under IDEA.
If you think your child needs
services, you have to follow a legal process to make it happen. This process can be confusing, and 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 or legal guardians. Learning your rights under IDEA can make it easier to get the help your child 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 families. This is called Child Find. Once kids are found to have a qualifying 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 or legal guardians a voice in their child’s education. Under IDEA, you have a say in the decisions the school makes about your child. At every point in 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.
Not every child is eligible for special education under IDEA, and having a diagnosis doesn’t guarantee eligibility. To qualify, your child must have a disability that falls under one of the 13 categories IDEA covers. They are:
(includes dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and other learning differences)
Speech or language impairment
Traumatic brain injury
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
If, for instance, 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 2017–2018, around 7 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.
After the evaluation, the school will hold an eligibility meeting to decide if your child qualifies for special education. If the answer is yes, 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 and caregivers
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 key rights.