IDEA - Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was originally enacted by Congress in 1975 to ensure that children with disabilities have the opportunity to receive a free appropriate public education, just like other children. The law has been revised many times over the years. The most recent amendments were passed by Congress in December 2004, with final regulations published in August 2006. So, in one sense, the law is very new, even as it has a long, detailed, and powerful history.

IDEA 2004 emphasizes the importance of having high expectations and improved educational results for children with disabilities. Supporting this is increased parent participation in the development of their child's educational program.

IDEA is divided into four parts, as follows:

  • Part A - General Provisions
  • Part B - Assistance for Education of All Children with Disabilities
  • Part C - Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities
  • Part D - National Activities to Improve Education of Children with Disabilities

IDEA 2004

IDEA has been revised many times, with the most recent changes signed into law as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act on December 3, 2004. IDEA 2004 requires that:

  • Special education and related services should be designed to meet the unique learning needs of eligible children with disabilities, preschool through age 21.
  • Students with disabilities should be prepared for further education, employment and independent living.

The final version of IDEA 2004 was published in the Federal Register on August 14, 2006. The regulations went into effect on October 14, 2006.

IDEA 2004 Regulations - Available on the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) web site.
U.S. Department of Education - Provides links to information on IEDA 2004
Wrightslaw - A reformatted version of IDEA 2004 and a summary of key changes.

Who is Eligible for Special Education?

IDEA covers specific disabilities that have an impact on a child's ability to learn. The child must have an educationally handicapping condition:

  • Children age 3 through age 5 must have one or more developmental delays in cognitive, communication, social, emotional or adaptive development.
  • School aged children age 5 through age 21 must have one of the following:
    1. Autism - a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engaging in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term autism does not apply if the child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance, as defined in #5 below.
    2. Cognitive Disability (Mental Retardation) - significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently [at the same time] with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
    3. Deaf-Blindness - concomitant [simultaneous] hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness.
    4. Deafness - a hearing impairment so severe that a child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, that adversely affects a child's educational performance.
    5. Developmental Delay - for children from birth to age three (under IDEA Part C) and children from ages three through nine (under IDEA Part B), the term developmental delay, as defined by each State, means a delay in one or more of the following areas: physical development; cognitive development; communication; social or emotional development; or adaptive [behavioral] development.
    6. Emotional Disturbance - a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:
      1. An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
      2. An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
      3. Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
      4. A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
      5. A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

      The term includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance.

    7. Hearing Impairment - an impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance but is not included under the definition of "deafness."
    8. Multiple Disabilities - concomitant [simultaneous] impairments (such as mental retardation-blindness, mental retardation-orthopedic impairment, etc.), the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in a special education program solely for one of the impairments. The term does not include deaf-blindness.
    9. Orthopedic Impairment - a severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes impairments caused by a congenital anomaly, impairments caused by disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis), and impairments from other causes (e.g., cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures).
    10. Other Health Impairment - having limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that:
      1. is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome; and
      2. adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
    11. Specific Learning Disability - a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; of mental retardation; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.
    12. Speech or Language Impairment - a communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
    13. Traumatic Brain Injury - an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech.
    14. Visual Impairment Including Blindness - an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness.

Referral for Special Education Services

Contact the teacher or principal if you think your child has a disability that is interfering with his ability to learn. Some schools begin the process by providing intervention assistance to see if additional academic and behavioral support would help your child in the classroom. This is sometimes called Information is gathered to see what strategies are successful. No matter where you are in this process, if you suspect that your child has a disability, express your concerns in a letter and request an evaluation. If the school also suspects that your child has a disability that might need special education services, you will be contacted for written permission to begin an initial evaluation. However, the school is not required to conduct an evaluation if it does not suspect a disability. You will be given a copy of your rights, sometimes called procedural safeguards. This will tell you about the special education process and your due process rights if you disagree with the school decision.

Wrightslaw - information on the "response to intervention" process to assist in the identification of students with specific learning disabilities.

IDEA Terms You Need to Know

Evaluation is the process used to gather information to assist in determining whether your child has a disability and is eligible for special education services. You may hear this called a multifactored evaulation or MFE. The school district must ask the parent(s) for written permission to begin this initial evaluation process. An evaluation team, including the parents and qualified professionals, will use a variety of tools and strategies to determine if the child has a disability and educational needs that require special education and related services. The evaluation must address all areas related to the suspected disability and include information provided by the parents. Input from your child's physician and other health care providers may also be very helpful. The initial evaluation must be completed within 60 days of receiving parent consent for the evaluation. If you disagree with the findings of the evaluation, you can request an independent educational evaluation by a qualified professional not employed by the school. The school district may either agree to pay for the outside evaluation or decide to defend its own evaluation as valid.

If the team determines that your child has a disability that requires special education sevices, an individualized education program, called an IEP, will be developed to address those unique learning needs.

A child who is not eligible for services under IDEA, may qualify for supports under another law called Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 covers a broader range of disabilities that limit major life activities.

IDEA ensures that children with disabilities have access to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). This means that special education and related services are provided by public schools at no cost to the family. What is an appropriate education differs for each child with a disability, yet each child is entitled to an individualized education program (IEP) to address learning needs.

Special education instruction must be made available to students in what is known as the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). This means that a child be educated and participate with nondisabled peers, to the maximum extent appropriate, in general education, extracurricular and other nonacademic activities. Special education instruction can be provided in a number of ways, on a continuum from least restrictive to more restrictive settings. This could include instruction in regular classes, special classes, special schools, home instruction, hospitals or institutions.

A Reevaluation of the child must take place at least once every three years, but it can be requested at anytime if the school or parents feel aditional evaluation information is necessary. You may hear this called a multifactored evaluation or MFE. A reevaluation may include more formal testing or a review of existing school work and assessments. The results help to determine if the child is still in need of special education services.

Related Services are provided if it is determined that these services are required to assist the child to benefit from the special education program. Related services can include: speech, physical or occupational therapy, audiology, psychological services, interpreting services, recreation, including therapeutic recreation, social work services, counseling services, orientation and mobility services, school nurse services, including the development of an individualized health care plan, transportation services and medical services that assist with diagnosis and evaluation.

Special Education is specially designed instruction to meet the unique educational needs of an eligible child with a disability. It includes instruction in general education and physical education, as well as participation in extracurricular and other nonacademic activities. Special education could include adapting the content, teaching methods or delivery of instruction to address a child's unique learning needs. A student may be evaluated for special education services if the disability adversely affects educational performance. Students are eligible to receive services from age 3 through age 21, or until the receipt of a high school diploma, whichever is earlier.

Supplementary Aids and Services must be provided to enable the child to be in the least restrictive environment possible. This can include classroom aids, assistive technology devices, computers, adaptations and modifications to physical environments and other supports so that children with disabilities can be educated with their nondisabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate.

The Entire Law

Part B Regulations

Part C Regulations

Regulations for this part of IDEA, as reauthorized in 2004, are not available yet.


Families and Advocates Partner for Education (FAPE) - Provides a summary of key changes under IDEA 2004.
U.S. Department of Education
National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) - Provides contact information on State Resources, laws, organizations and programs serving children and youth with disabilities.
The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) - Information and resources on special education services.
Wrightslaw - current information about the special education process as well as tips on writing letters to request services and a glossary of special education terms.
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