What is IDEA?
The term "special education" generally refers to programs developed and run in accordance with a federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA requires that all students who have a disability specified in IDEA receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).
A disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Students are eligible for federally funded special education services under IDEA if they have one of the following disabilities:
- Physical handicap
- Emotionally disturbed
- Visual impairment
- Intellectual disability
- Learning disabled
- Multiply disabled
- Auditory impairment
- Traumatic brain injury
- Speech handicapped
What is Section 504?
Section 504 is part of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination based solely upon disability in any program receiving federal financial assistance. Any discrimination would subject the entire institution to the possible loss of federal funding.
Any public school that receives federal funds is subject to the requirements of Section 504. Students who have a disability that meets the general definition of a disability but that does not fall into one of the IDEA categories above might be eligible for services under Section 504.
Unlike IDEA, Section 504 does not describe a precise procedural scheme for implementation. Instead, school districts set their own policies, but most use a process very similar to that used for special education students. The procedures outlined below may not be technically required for 504 students but are probably similar to those in place for these students in your individual school district.
A student is eligible for services under either IDEA or Section 504 if:
- The student has a disability and
- Is unable to benefit from the regular educational program without modifications.
What if you think a student may need special services?
Students must be assessed to determine if special instruction or related services are necessary for the student to benefit fully from the educational program:
- When the student is suspected of having a disability
- After a referral of assessment is made by a classroom teacher or other source (any person with reason to believe that a student may need special services can refer that student for testing)
- Within 60 days from the date the referral was initiated
- With consent from the parent or legal guardian
- According to very particular procedural protections for the student and parents
- At the school’s cost
How are placement and services determined?
- Admission, review and dismissal (ARD) committees make all decisions concerning: whether a student is eligible for services; the placement or setting in which the student will receive those services; at what point the child no longer needs special education; and, at least initially, what specific services the student needs.
- An ARD committee is composed, at a minimum, of a student’s parents, an administrator, a representative from special education and a regular education teacher if the student will be educated in the regular setting. In some circumstances, there may be additional members. Other nonvoting participants may be included if they are needed to provide helpful input.
- ARD committees develop an individualized education program (IEP) for each student. An IEP sets out goals for a particular student and specifies how those goals will be met. It may also include instructions for special therapy services, adaptive technology, modified class work or a special behavioral intervention plan (BIP). If a student’s class work needs to be modified, those modifications must be initially developed through the ARD process and placed in the IEP.
Where should students with disabilities be educated?
- IDEA presumes that students with disabilities will be educated with their peers without disabilities in the least restrictive environment (LRE) that is appropriate. (This is where the concept of inclusion comes from.)
- Districts must provide supplementary aids and services necessary to make placement with peers without disabilities possible, such as computer-assisted technology, special furniture, a modified curriculum, training for the teacher or provision of a special education teacher or aide—in short, whatever device or service is necessary for the satisfactory implementation of the IEP in the regular classroom setting.
- When a student is placed in a more restrictive setting, the district must be able to show that the regular setting was not appropriate for implementation of that student’s IEP.
- If the education of the other students in a class would be significantly impaired by the presence of a particular student with a disability, then that class is not an appropriate placement for that student. However, consideration first must be given to all supplementary aids and services that might accommodate the student in that setting.
What exactly is an IEP?
- An IEP is an official document developed by an ARD committee that records all aspects of a student’s educational program.
- An IEP should include, at a minimum, annual goals, short-term instructional objectives, and all special education and related services to be provided to a particular student.
- Districts are responsible for seeing that all aspects of IEPs are properly implemented.
- Teachers are required to follow the modifications set forth in IEPs.
Each teacher of a student with disabilities should be given relevant sections of that student’s IEP.