Understand the Law in Special Education


by Margot Andersen, M.S.W.

Understanding the law in special education and how it can work for you will make you a better advocate in securing services for your child. People are often intimidated by the jargon they consider to be reserved for legal experts. Since “knowledge is power”, and you want to be the most powerful advocate you can be, let’s begin to de-mystify the legal terms. Children who have disabilities can be served under two separate laws: IDEA, a categorical funding law and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a civil rights law.

IDEA stands for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This Federal law was originally enacted in 1975 as P.L. (Public Law) 94-142 called The Education for All Handicapped Children Act. This law was re-named IDEA in 1990. This law was designed to protect the rights of handicapped children after Congress found that over half of the 8 million handicapped children in 1975 were not receiving appropriate educational services which would enable them to have full equality of opportunity. Although there have been 5 sets of amendments to the 1975 law, the basic principles remain the same. In other words, all children who qualify under the 13 categories spelled out by IDEA are entitled to:

—free appropriate public education (FAPE)
—appropriate evaluation
—individualized education program (IEP)
—least restrictive environment (LRE)
—parent and student participation in decision making
—procedural due process

IDEA is a funding law. It is an agreement between States and the Federal government that the States will comply with the statutes and regulations in order to receive federal funding for the education of eligible students ages birth to 21. In order to be eligible for service under IDEA, a student must qualify under one of these diagnostic categories: speech or language impairments, visual impairments including blindness, orthopedic impairments, hearing impairments including deafness, multiple disabilities, mental retardation, autism, traumatic brain injury, specific learning disabilities, severe emotional disturbance (Bi-Polar Disorder), or Other Health Impaired (for example, ADD/ADHD. Etc). In addition to having the condition, one must also be able to show that the condition adversely effects learning. The student must be in need of both special education AND related services. At the core of IDEA is the individualized education plan (IEP) which is the blueprint for delivering all the services. The IEP must be reasonably designed to provide educational benefit. As such, the IEP must have goals written that have measurable outcomes to show that the child is making progress each year. IDEA also has many legal procedural safeguards and guidelines, which schools must adhere to.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a civil rights law that applies to programs that receive federal financial assistance. To be eligible, one has to have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, such as learning. Simply put, schools cannot discriminate against students with disabilities on the basis of those disabilities. Section 504 is a much broader law than IDEA. It does not have all of the procedural safeguards and guidelines, and it is not a funding law. Although the rules under Section 504 have been in place since the start of the 1977-78 school year, many schools still do not fully understand how to apply it to students with disabilities such as ADHD or Bi-Polar disorder. Section 504 applies to students needing special education OR related services and as such, may apply to more children than IDEA. Under Section 504, a child may only need to receive accommodations in order to function in his/her classroom.

If a parent disagrees with the programming decision made by the school, the parent has the right to ask to go to mediation or to request a due process hearing under either IDEA or Section 504. Understanding the Special Education maze is a challenge and understanding how to apply these laws to your child’s unique needs is essential.

Margot Andersen, M.S.W. is a Clinical Social Worker, the parent of a 21 year old son with ADHD, LD and Bi-Polar Disorder, and is a professional Educational Advocate. She has a private practice specializing in individual counseling and educational advocacy for parents of children with unique educational needs. 847-272-4090