An opportunity to learn is one of the few things guaranteed to all children, regardless of circumstances. Children receiving Special Education services haven’t always been given this opportunity. Congress, the lawmaking branch of the Federal Government, states: “Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.” There are three main Federal Laws that protect the rights of people with disabilities in school: Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). I’m going to give a brief overview of the first two, and then we will dive a little deeper into the IDEA.
Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act was the first disability civil rights law to be enacted in the US. This law is designed to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities that receive Federal financial assistance. A medical diagnosis or an illness does not automatically mean a student can receive services under Section 504, the disability must cause a substantial limitation on the student’s ability to learn or engage in other major life activities.
Under Section 504, students with disabilities have the right to reasonable accommodations in academic and nonacademic settings. Some nonacademic school settings accommodations can include, (but are not limited to) district-sponsored programs such as after-school care, interscholastic athletics, field trips, dances and school performances. For a student with diabetes, they may be permission to eat whenever and wherever necessary, and making sure multiple staff members are trained to check blood glucose levels and administer insulin and glucagon.
For students with disabilities who do not require specialized instruction but need accommodations for his/her specific circumstances, a document called a 504 Plan is created detailing necessary accommodations. Possible examples of accommodations that might be listed in 504 plans could be preferential seating, extended time on tests and assignments and more.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), became law in 1990. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. School districts are required to operate their programs so that when viewed in their entirety they are accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. Possible examples of ADA violations in school: not allowing an individual with a disability to be accompanied by a service animal in school, not having handicap accessible bathroom facilities, elevators or ramps, retaliating or harassing a person for advocating for rights under this law.
In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed into law the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142), now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In adopting this landmark civil rights measure, Congress opened public school doors for millions of children with disabilities and laid a foundation ensuring that children with disabilities have opportunities to learn. Subsequent amendments have led to an increased emphasis on access to the general education curriculum and accountability for the achievement of students with disabilities. The IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities.
In the last 40+ years, expectations have advanced for all children with disabilities. Classrooms have become more inclusive and significant progress has been made toward protecting the rights of, meeting the individual needs of, and improving educational outcomes for students with disabilities.
There are six main provisions under the IDEA.
- Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
Every child with a disability is entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). This emphasizes special education and related services, which should be designed to meet a child’s “unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.” IDEA defines special education as “specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a student with a disability”(Sec. 300.39.a.l).
Related services is a term for services a disabled student needs to benefit from Special Education. Examples include but are not limited to: transportation, speech-language pathology and audiology services, interpreting services, assistive technology, a Speech generating device, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, recreation, behavior support, school nurse services, and counseling. Parent training can also be a related service.
- Appropriate Evaluation
The IDEA requires that schools conduct “appropriate evaluations” of students who are known to or suspected of having a disability, by a team of knowledgeable and trained evaluators, using sound evaluation materials and procedures and administered on a non-discriminatory basis.
If parents do not agree with an evaluation done by the District, In the US, by Federal Law, you can request that an outside provider of your choosing do a new evaluation called an Independent Educational Evaluation- IEE- for your child, at the cost of the District. You must put it in writing, and the District has 30 days to respond to your request. They can either agree to it, or file for a Due Process Hearing to show why the IEE is not necessary.
3. Individualized Education Plan
The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) was established by the IDEA to help ensure every child’s access to a Free Appropriate Public Education. The IEP is a written legal document, developed by an IEP team, which draws upon existing evaluation information to meet a student’s unique educational needs.
Under the IDEA, an IEP must include: information regarding a student’s present levels of educational performance, annual goals and benchmarking objectives, a description of how the child’s progress toward meeting the annual goals will be measured, and when periodic progress reports will be provided, services and supplementary aids to be received, the projected date for the beginning of the services and modifications, and the anticipated frequency, location, and duration and person responsible for providing those services and modifications, and lastly, it includes a detailed explanation of instances where a student is not participating in the general classroom and why.
It is required that an IEP account for the planning concerns of the parents (a valuable member of the IEP Team) and child, the strengths of a child, and the specific “academic, developmental, and functional needs” of the child.
Courts have held that the IDEA requires schools to prepare Individualized Education Plans, which confer “meaningful educational benefit” to children with disabilities. This includes a focus on raised student expectations, appropriate progress, and transition into postsecondary education and independent living. Because of the 2017 US Supreme Court Case Decision, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the Court reinforced the requirement that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives,” and each child’s educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his or her circumstances.
4. Least Restrictive Environment
Under the IDEA, a student is guaranteed placement in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). School districts are required to educate students with disabilities in regular classrooms with their nondisabled peers, in the school they would attend if not disabled, to the maximum extent appropriate for each student. This will look different for each student, based on their abilities and needs. All options, (academic and nonacademic) options must be explored, including but not limited to: general education curriculum in the classroom, art, music, library time, Physical Education, Lunch and Recess and more. Some students with disabilities may spend all day in a general education classroom, some- only during activities that are in line with the student’s abilities. This must be INDIVIDUALIZED.
Special classes, separate schools or removal from the general education class should only happen when a student’s learning or attention issue—his “disability” under IDEA—is so severe that supplementary aids and services can’t provide him with an appropriate education. If an IEP team determines that a student cannot be satisfactorily educated in a general education setting, then the team must make responsible efforts to determine the LRE for that student outside of the general classroom.
5. Parent Participation
The IDEA has a special provision for “parent participation in placement decisions.” Under this provision, state educational agencies and local school boards must ensure that the parents of a child with a disability are members of any group that makes decisions regarding the placement and LRE of that child. Parents have the right to equal participation in this process, and are entitled to notification of a planned evaluation, access to planning and evaluation materials, and involvement in all meetings regarding their child’s placement. Additionally, parents retain the right to refuse further evaluation of their child.
6. Procedural Safeguards
Finally, the IDEA establishes procedural safeguards to help parents and students enforce their rights under federal law. The primary purpose of this requirement is twofold: safeguards protect parental access to information pertaining to placement and transition planning; and procedures are put in place to resolve disagreements between parents and schools regarding the placement of a student.
The Notice of Procedural Safeguards is required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (in English, referred to as IDEA) and must be provided to parents/guardians.
Under the IDEA procedural safeguards, parents have a right to review all educational records pertaining to their child, receive notice prior to meetings about their child’s evaluation, placement, or identification, and to obtain an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) for consideration at such meetings.
If disagreements arise, parents have the right to request mediation or due process hearings with state-level education agencies, and beyond that may appeal the decision in state or federal court.
Special education has changed significantly over the years, both in procedure and in culture. New teaching methods, changing perspectives, and an emphasis on inclusion have shifted ideas and introduced new concepts. For special education teachers, administrators and for students, it’s an exciting time. No matter your role—parent, teacher, student or administrator—it is important to understand the laws governing special education so that you can best advocate for your needs, or for the needs of a student.
More info on IEPs https://www.wrightslaw.com/info/iep.index.htm
More info on IDEA https://sites.ed.gov/idea/about-idea/
More info on ADA https://www.ada.gov/
More info on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/504faq.html
Procedural Safeguards: https://sites.ed.gov/idea/files/modelform_Procedural_Safeguards_June_2009.pdf