If you are a student living with a physical or learning disability, chances are that you’re already familiar with the laws that protect you during your K–12 education. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that mandates that all public agencies, including schools, ensure that children with disabilities have access to intervention (starting at birth and continuing until age 21), special education, and services related to their disability. There are several ways that these goals are accomplished.


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What is IDEA?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a revamped version of a law originally known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which passed in 1975. Its intention was to ensure that all children with disabilities had access to public education and received a free meal while at school. IDEA was renamed and passed in 1990 and amended in 1997 and 2004 (with regulations updated in 2006 and 2011). IDEA guarantees that all students with disabilities have access to free public education specifically tailored to their needs. There are six pillars that make up IDEA:

  1. Individualized Education Program (IEP)
  2. Free, Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
  3. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
  4. Protection in evaluation
  5. Parental and teacher participation
  6. Procedural safeguards

The 2004 amendment to IDEA was updated in 2011 with new regulations to help improve services and outcomes for infants and toddlers with disabilities and developmental delays. Around the child’s third birthday, he or she must be reevaluated and may transition into an Individualized Education Program (IEP) if it is deemed necessary. At this point, during the transition into kindergarten and elementary school, all six pillars of IDEA become applicable to the student provided he or she continues to attend a public institution.

IDEA shows the federal government’s commitment to educate all of the nation’s children, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. Students are protected under IDEA until their high school graduation or 22nd birthday (whichever comes first). Unfortunately, IDEA protections do not continue after high school. Students are no longer eligible for free, appropriate public education and no longer receive IEPs, even if they choose to pursue postsecondary education. Colleges are not legally responsible for identifying students who show signs of a disability nor are they required to involve parents. For information on how your rights will change in college, click here.

What disabilities are covered by IDEA?

Section 300.8 of IDEA states “Child with a disability means a child evaluated in accordance with Sec. Sec. 300.304 through 300.311 as having mental retardation, a hearing impairment (including deafness), a speech or language impairment, a visual impairment (including blindness), a serious emotional disturbance (referred to in this part as ‘emotional disturbance’), an orthopedic impairment, autism, traumatic brain injury, an other health impairment, a specific learning disability, deaf-blindness, or multiple disabilities, and who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.” The section then goes on to describe in more detail the definitions of the terms listed above. To qualify as having a disability under IDEA, a student’s educational performance must be adversely affected by their condition.

Can a school decline to help a student with disabilities?

No student with a disability as defined by IDEA can be denied a free, appropriate public education, regardless of the type or severity of their impairment. This applies to K–12 students at public schools between the ages of three and 21 years old. Students who attend private schools are not covered under IDEA.

What is an Individualized Education Program?

If a student qualifies as having a disability under IDEA and the disability adversely affects their education, the student must receive an IEP. An IEP is a legal document that details how their individual needs will be met at school. This plan is drafted, with parent input, by the student’s teachers (both general and special education), a professional with experience interpreting evaluation results and knowledge of the student’s disability, and a special education representative. It should include information about the student’s current performance and educational goals for the year. It must describe how the school will help the student meet those goals (e.g., services, accommodations in the classroom and during tests, progress reports, etc.). An IEP is reviewed each year to determine if the current plan is the best course of action, and students are reevaluated every three years to determine if their needs have changed.

What is Free, Appropriate Public Education?

Just like general education students, students with disabilities are legally entitled to a public education at no cost. (Similarly, if their parents choose, they may instead pay for their children to be educated in private schools.) Not only are students entitled to a free education (which is the basis of the zero reject concept), the public education should be preparatory for pursuing higher education, joining the workforce, and living independently. The education that a student receives should not only increase their educational capabilities and further their emotional and physical development, but it should enhance their quality of life now and in the future.

It must also be adjusted to suit the student’s needs, meaning that the education that the student receives is in accordance with what is necessary for an individual student as stated within their IEP. Thus, the education that the student receives must be suited to their disability. For instance, if a student’s disability is so great that a public school in their district doesn’t have the accommodations to teach them on site, the school may place the student in a privately run program at public expense. Parents are not responsible for choosing the school, and the student’s costs will be covered by the state. If an evaluation determines that a student needs care in a facility away from home, the state will also cover the cost. If the parents choose to remove their child from a public school that does offer an appropriate education and place them in a private program or facility, the parents assume liability for all costs.

Students also cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their disability when it comes to classroom facilities, learning materials, or their participation in school-related extracurricular activities. Students are also entitled to school meals that meet their dietary needs as specified in their IEPs. Schools are not allowed to charge students with special dietary needs more than they charge students without special dietary needs, and the school’s food authority must absorb any costs associated with food substitutions and modifications. In short, the cost of these meals depends entirely on a student’s family’s income, not on the student’s special dietary needs.

What is the Least Restrictive Environment?

The least restrictive environment is the same one in which students without disabilities are learning. As much as possible, students with disabilities should be taught the same material in the same environment as their nondisabled peers. The only time that students with disabilities should be in a special education classroom, taught individually, or placed in a private program is when their disability inhibits their capacity to keep up with the material or the subject matter that is being taught to students of the same age without disabilities.

What is protection in evaluation?

Protection in evaluation means that the school district must fairly evaluate (without any racial, cultural, or socioeconomic bias) each child with a disability in order to create an individualized education plan for the child. Parents can request an evaluation from the school if they have reason to believe that their child may struggle in their education. The school may request permission from the parents to evaluate a student if they’ve observed that the student may have a disability. Evaluations must take place within 60 days of the request or the parent’s consent.

Evaluations must be done individually for each student, in the mode and primary language of the student’s communication. A deaf student, for instance, could be evaluated in American Sign Language instead of spoken English. Multiple tests may be necessary to completely evaluate all areas of a disability; decisions about a student’s educational plan are to be made based on the results of all tests. All evaluations must be administered by a professional and interpretations are to be made by a team of experts, including at least one teacher and one specialist in the student’s disability.

If a school does not have the staff required to administer an evaluation, the student may be given an independent educational evaluation (an evaluation done by professionals who are not associated with the school). The school may also request a private evaluation if they believe that further testing is necessary after completing their evaluation. In these cases, the school will cover the cost of the evaluation. A parent may also choose an independent educational evaluation after having a school evaluation done, particularly if a school-administered report seems incorrect, but the parent will be liable for the cost.

What is a procedural safeguard?

Procedural safeguards are implemented to ensure that a student with disabilities gets a free, appropriate public education and to maintain the rights of both the student and the parents.

Under IDEA, parents have the legal right to be included in their child’s education every step of the way. While in some cases this may only include being notified before changes to their child’s educational plan, they may also give their input when developing or updating an IEP and planning for transitions after high school. Parents will have full access to all of their child’s educational records, including the results of all evaluations, and must give consent before any further evaluations or changes that affect their child’s education take place.

If a parent disagrees with the school, the parent has the right to either mediation or due process, in which the school and the parent work out their disagreement in a monitored setting. Parents also have the right to file a lawsuit if the disagreement cannot be resolved. While the parent is working to solve a disagreement, the child has the right to stay at their current school and continue their education as normal for the duration of the disagreement and subsequent resolution.

What is parental participation?

Parental participation is simply the idea that parents (and the students themselves) should have a say in how a student’s education progresses. Parents and teachers need to work together to determine the student’s goals, what kind of classroom environment the student is best suited to, and the method of instruction. This symbiotic relationship between teacher and parent ensures that the parents stay informed about their child’s education and progress and that they have input in decision-making.

What is a 504 plan?

A 504 plan is similar to an IEP, but it is generally less specific. While it still provides a plan for a student with disabilities’ education, it does not provide specialized instruction that is specific to their disabilities. It does, however, identify accommodations that a student may need and ensures that they will receive accommodations in the classroom. Evaluations for a 504 plan are always carried out by the school that the child attends (though parents can pay for an independent evaluation should they choose) and the plan is drafted by a group of people who are familiar with the student’s academic abilities and disability. This group may include the student’s parents, special and general education teachers, and the school principal. A professional is not required to be on the team. The 504 plan itself lists the accommodations that the student will receive and the name of the person who will provide and ensure that the student gets their accommodations.

What is the difference between an IEP and a 504 plan?

504 plans are open to more students than IEPs because the definition of a disability under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is broader than the definition of a disability under IDEA. Students with 504 plans generally do not need the same type of specialized instruction that a student with an IEP would need. A student may have both an IEP and a 504 plan, but it is not necessary to have a 504 plan if there is already an IEP in place. (An IEP encompasses everything that would be included in a 504 plan and more.)

This chart goes into more detail about the differences between IEPs and 504 plans.

What comes after high school?

By the time a student turns 14, a transition plan must be included in their IEP. This identifies the additional services provided by a school that will help a student transition to life after high school; these services must be implemented by the time the student turns 16. Depending on their abilities, a student may choose to attend college or a vocational school, enter the workforce, and/or live independently. Their current school may be able to provide college or career counseling, among other things.

Transition planning is essential, and not just because it is legally required by IDEA. Creating a transition plan gives the student a chance to express future goals and shows how their desires can become a reality. Parents also have input into the transition plan; while teachers and the IEP team know about a student’s in-school accomplishments, parents provide a window into the student’s abilities outside of school. This helps the writers of the student’s IEP identify appropriate services.

If a student with a disability hopes to go on to college after graduating from high school, that student must be adequately prepared to learn, to live independently, to advocate for their rights, and to understand the technology and conditions needed for learning. Learn more about how a student’s rights will change after completing high school here.

Page last updated: 04/2017