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U.S.EDUCATION > The U.S. Education System > Special Needs and Charter Schools > Education of Children with Disabilities: An Evolving 'Idea'

IDEA (The Individual with Disabilities Education Act)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law enacted in 1990 and reauthorized in 1997.  It is designed to protect the rights of students with disabilities by ensuring that everyone receives a free appropriate public education (FAPE), regardless of ability. Furthermore, IDEA strives not only to grant equal access to students with disabilities, but also to provide additional special education services and procedural safeguards. 

Special education services are individualized to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities and are provided in the least restrictive environment. Special education may include individual or small group instruction, curriculum or teaching modifications, assistive technology, transition services and other specialized services such as physical, occupational, and speech therapy. These services are provided in accordance with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which is specifically tailored to the unique needs of each student.     

IDEA also grants increased parental participation and protection for students. 

Who qualifies?

Children between the ages of 3 and 21, who meet the eligibility criteria in one of thirteen qualifying disabilities and who require special education services because of the disability can qualify for services under IDEA. The categories of disabilities are; autism, deaf/blind, deafness, hearing impaired, mental retardation, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, serious emotional disturbance, specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, visual impairment including blindness, and other health impairment. To be eligible, a student must have a disability that adversely affects her or his educational performance and must need special education in order to receive an appropriate education. 

How can IDEA help my child?

Children who qualify under IDEA are provided with services and accommodations individualized to their needs. At its most basic IDEA entitles a child suspected of having a disability to a comprehensive evaluation by a multi-disciplinary team provided at no cost to parents. If the child is determined to need special education and related services an Individual Education Plan (IEP) will be implemented based on the specific needs of the child as decided by the team, including parents. 

Once covered under an IEP, students with disabilities are re-evaluated at least every three years and their IEP is reviewed whenever a change in placement occurs, which is often annually as transferring from grade to grade is considered a change in placement. 

Additionally, students covered under IDEA are granted other protections and safeguards. Suspension for 10 cumulative days within the school year may result in a Manifestation Determination to decide if a link exists between the child's behavior and her or his disability.  If a child covered under IDEA is suspended or expelled, she or he is still entitled to special education services. In the event that parents disagree with the school's decision and request an impartial due process hearing, the "stay-put" provision will be enacted ensuring that the child remains in her or his current educational placement until administrative proceedings conclude. Exceptions include when the child brings a weapon or drugs to school or is determined to be a danger to her or himself or others. 

What are my responsibilities as a parent?

As a parent you are in the best position to advocate for your child, and in order to do that you must be aware of what you can do to ensure that your child receives the services and accommodations she or he needs. 

  1. Stay informed. Understand your child's diagnosis, how it impacts her or his education and what can be done at home to help.
  2. Understand your child's IEP. If you have questions, do not be afraid to ask. If you still have questions, continue to ask until you completely understand the process, the IEP, and how this will help your child's education.  Do not sign an IEP unless you understand and agree with the contents.  
  3. Speak with your child's teacher. Teachers often have similar concerns as parents and welcome the opportunity to discuss them. 
  4. Get it in writing. When possible obtain written documentation from teachers, administrators, or other professionals working with your child describing any behavioral or academic concerns they may have. 
  5. Know your rights
  6. Play an active role in preparing your child's IEP or Section 504 plan. Make suggestions, and speak up if you feel a goal, objective, or accommodation is not appropriate.
  7. Keep careful records. This should include any written documentation you have obtained, communication between home and school, progress reports and evaluations. You should also keep a copy of any letter you send to the school. Keep these records well organized and in one place, they may be very useful. 
  8. Try to maintain a good working relationship with the school while being a strong advocate for your child. 
  9. Communicate any concerns you may have about your child's progress or IEP or 504 plan.  Schedule meetings to ensure you and the school are on the same page. Find an unobtrusive way to communicate on a regular basis with your child's teachers, perhaps using a communication notebook. 
  10. Encourage your child everyday and devise a system to help with homework and other school projects. 
Other Web Sites:
  • IDEA & U.S. Dept of Education
    Federal site for information about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
  • User's Guide to the 2004 IDEA Reauthorization
    The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) has prepared an analysis of recent IDEA changes. This is a long (63 pg) and technical document designed for use by public policy professionals. Parents and educators should scan the table of contents for sections of greatest interest. (in PDF)
  • Families and Advocates Partnership for Education
    The Families and Advocates Partnership for Education project is part of the IDEA Partnership and strives to improve the educational outcomes of children with disabilities. It facilitates communication between families and advocates and focuses on IDEA.
  • IDEAPractices
    IDEA Practices, part of the IDEA Partnership funded by the US Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), informs families and educators about IDEA 97 and strategies to improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities.
  • A Guide to the Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
    Department of Education guidance assisting educators, parents, and state and local educational agencies in implementing the requirements of Part B of the IDEA regarding IEPs for children with disabilities, including preschool-aged children.





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