Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): What You Need to Know

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD
Email Email
Chat's logo Chat's logo

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 special education 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.

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, which includes charter schools. (Find out how IDEA affects students in private school.)

Services Under IDEA: Who’s Eligible

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:

  • Autism

  • Deaf-blindness

  • Deafness

  • Emotional disturbance

  • Hearing impairment

  • Intellectual disability

  • Multiple disabilities

  • Orthopedic impairment

  • Other health impairment (includes ADHD)

  • Specific learning disability (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.

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.

How to Get Services Under IDEA

An evaluation gets the ball rolling under IDEA. You 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 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.

To take full advantage of IDEA protections, though, you have to speak up for your child. Learn 10 simple ways to 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 the Understood Community to hear from other families on how they navigated the process.

Key Takeaways

  • To qualify under IDEA, a child must have a disability and need special education because of it.

  • If your child is eligible, you’ll work with a school team to develop an IEP.

  • IDEA gives you a say in your child’s education, and many important rights.

About the Author

About the Author

Andrew M.I. Lee, JD 

is an editor and former attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Myrna Mandlawitz, MEd, JD 

has worked for over 20 years as a consultant/lobbyist on special and general education.

Did you find this helpful?

Stay Informed

Sign up for weekly emails containing helpful resources for you and your family.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Please wait...

By signing up, you acknowledge that you reside in the United States and are at least 13 years old, and agree that you've read the Terms and Conditions. Understood.org does not market to or offer services to individuals in the European Union.