The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a United States federal law that governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to children with disabilities. It addresses the educational needs of children with disabilities from birth to the age of 21.

The IDEA is considered to be a civil rights law. However, states are not required to participate. As an incentive and to assist states in complying with its requirements, IDEA makes funds available to states that adopt at least the minimum policies and procedures specified in the IDEA regarding the education of children with disabilities. In defining the purpose of special education, IDEA 2004 clarifies Congress’ intended outcome for each child with a disability: students must be provided a free appropriate public education (FAPE) that prepares them for further education, employment and independent living. Formerly known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the IDEA was most recently amended in 2004.


Before the EHA statute was enacted in 1975, U.S. public schools educated only 1 out of 5 children with disabilities. Many states had laws that explicitly excluded children with certain types of disabilities from attending public school, including children who were blind, deaf, and children labeled "emotionally disturbed" or "mentally retarded." At the time the EHA was enacted, more than 1 million children in the U.S. had no access to the public school system. Many of these children lived at state institutions where they received limited or no educational or rehabilitation services. Another 3.5 million children attended school but were “warehoused” in segregated facilities and received little or no effective instruction. As of 2006, more than 6 million children in the U.S. receive special education services through IDEA.

Provisions of IDEA

Eligibility for services

Having a disability does not automatically qualify a student for special education services under the IDEA; the student is eligible for services only if the disability adversely affects the student's educational progress and performance. IDEA defines "child with a disability" as a child . . . with mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance…, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities ; AND, who . . . [because of the condition] needs special education and related services. Children with disabilities who do not qualify for special education may qualify for accommodations or modifications under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Students covered by Section 504 do not qualify for special education or related services, nor are they protected by due process procedures.

Individualized Education Program

The act requires that public schools create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for each student who is found to be eligible under the both the federal and state eligibility/ disability standards. The IEP is the cornerstone of a student's educational program. It specifies the services to be provided and how often, describes the student's present levels of performance and how the student's disabilities affect academic performance, and specifies accommodations and modifications to be provided for the student. An IEP must be designed to meet the unique educational needs of that one child in the least restrictive environment appropriate to the needs of that child. That is, the least restrictive environment in which the child learns. When a child qualifies for services, an IEP team is convened to design an education plan. In addition to the child’s parents, the IEP team must include at least one of the child’s regular education teachers, a special education teacher, someone who can interpret the educational implications of the child’s evaluation, such as a school psychologist, and an administrator who has knowledge of the availability of services in the district and the authority to commit those services on behalf of the child. Parents are considered to be equal members of the IEP team along with the school staff. Based on the full educational evaluation results, this team collaborates to write an IEP for the child, one that will provide a free, appropriate public education.

Related services

The IDEA defines related services as, but is not limited to: transportation and such developmental, corrective, and other supportive services as are required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education, and includes speech-language pathology and audiology services, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, recreation, including therapeutic recreation, early identification and assessment of disabilities in children, counseling services, including rehabilitation counseling, orientation and mobility services, and medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes. The term also includes school health services, social work services in schools, and parent counseling and training.

Free Appropriate Public Education

Guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), FAPE is defined as an educational program that is individualized to a specific child, designed to meet that child's unique needs, and from which the child receives educational benefit. To provide FAPE, schools must provide students with an “… education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.” Some of the criteria specified in various sections of the IDEA statute include requirements that schools provide each disabled student an education that:

  • Is designed to meet the unique needs of that one student
  • Provides “ …access to the general curriculum to meet the challenging expectations established for all children” (that is, it meets the approximate grade-level standards of the state educational agency)
  • Is provided in accordance with the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) as defined in 1414(d)(3).
  • Results in educational benefit to the child.

Least Restrictive Environment

U.S.. Dept. Education, 2005a regulations implementing IDEA states: " the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities including children in public or private institutions or care facilities, are educated with children who are non disabled; and special classes, separate schooling or other removal of children with disabilities from regular educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily." Simply put, the LRE is the environment most like that of typical children in which the child with a disability can succeed. This refers not only to the physical location of a child's learning, but also to how the child will be taught. Congress states a clear preference that the child be included in regular education activities as much as possible. However, some disabilities may prohibit this option. In some respects, the type of placement is associated with the severity and type of the disability. Schools are required to have in place a continuum of possible placements, which may include mainstreaming programs, sometimes called inclusion, in which disabled students participate fully in general education classes using only supplementary aids and supports; collaborative classrooms in which a general education and special education teacher share responsibility for instruction; itinerant specialists serving general classrooms in several schools; pull-out programs in which the child leaves the regular classroom and receives specialized instruction or related services elsewhere, for example, speech therapy; self-contained special education classes attended most or all of the day; and special education facilities (including placement in day schools, hospitals, at home, or in full time residential facilities) for children with a particularly severe disability.

Early Intervention

Part C of the IDEA requires that infants and toddlers with disabilities receive early intervention services from birth through age 2. These services are provided according to an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP. In contrast, Part B of the IDEA requires that children with disabilities, from age 3 to 21, are provided a free appropriate public education.

Source: Wikipedia, 2007.

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