U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Students in an auto shop classroom gather around a table with tools and different materials. One student has white cane and another is using crutches.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), formerly called the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975, requires public schools to make available to all eligible children with disabilities a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment appropriate to the child’s education needs. Under the law, State and local education agencies are provided with federal financial assistance intended to guarantee special education and related services to eligible children with disabilities ages 3-21.

The requirement that public school systems must develop appropriate Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each each eligible child is at the core of the IDEA. The specific special education and related services outlined in each IEP reflect the individualized needs of students with disabilities. IDEA also establishes particular procedures that must be followed in the development of the IEP, which also must be reviewed at least once a year. Each student’s IEP must be developed by a team of knowledgeable persons that includes the child’s teacher(s); the parents (or educational guardian), subject to certain limited exceptions; the child, if determined appropriate; an education agency representative who is qualified to provide or supervise the provision of special education; and other individuals at the parents’ or agency’s discretion.

IDEA gives parents considerable due process rights and significant responsibilities. If parents disagree with the proposed IEP, they can request a due process hearing and a review from the State educational agency if applicable in that state. Parents can also appeal the State agency’s decision to State or Federal court.

Note that not every child with a disability will be qualified under IDEA. IDEA applies to children who are determined by a multidisciplinary team to be eligible within one or more of 13 specific disability categories and who need special education and related services. The categories include autism, deafness, deaf-blindness, hearing impairments, mental retardation, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairments, other health impairments, serious emotional disturbance, specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, traumatic brain injury, and visual impairments.

Section 504 has the same broad definition of disability as the ADA, and therefore schools can be required to provide disability-related accommodations and policy modifications where a child with a disability under Section 504 requires such accommodations to gain equal access to educational benefit. Procedural and funding requirements differ under IDEA and Section 504.