Significant Legislation for Students With Special Needs

Federal laws provide the legal foundation for the education of children who have disabilities. The primary laws in this area are as follows:

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Under this law, the Federal Government provides grants to states for services to children with disabilities. First enacted by Congress in 1975, IDEA governs how states, school districts, and other public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities. Infants and toddlers with disabilities from birth to age 2 and their families receive early intervention services under IDEA Part C. Under IDEA Part B, states must make a free, appropriate public education, including special education and related services, available to all children and youth with disabilities ranging in age from 3 to 21. One of the key components of IDEA Part B for schools, families, and students is the Individualized Education Program (IEP), which provides a blueprint for special education and related services a child receives.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

This Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. The U.S. Department of Education provides financial assistance to schools, colleges, and certain other entities, such as vocational rehabilitation programs. Examples of prohibited discrimination include denial of access to educational programs and activities and denial of a free appropriate public education for elementary and secondary students with disabilities. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) within the U.S. Department of Education enforces Section 504. OCR acts on complaints it receives from individuals or groups, including parents, students, and advocates; conducts agency initiated compliance reviews; and provides technical assistance to school districts, parents, and advocates. OCR often enters into resolution agreements with school districts or other entities; however, ultimately recipients risk loss of federal financial assistance if they fail to meet the requirements of Section 504.

Title II and Section 504 of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

Title II of the ADA (Title II) prohibits disability discrimination in the full range of state and local government services, programs, and activities (including public schools) regardless of whether they receive any Federal financial assistance. In general, Section 504 and Title II requirements are similar. Title II and Section 504 protect qualified students with disabilities. To have a disability under Title II and Section 504, a student must (1) have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities or (2) have a record of such an impairment or (3) be regarded as having such an impairment. Some examples of major life activities are caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. Generally in the elementary and secondary education context, a student with a disability is a “qualified” student with a disability if she or he is of school age. The Section 504 regulations and, by interpretation, Title II require that school districts provide a free appropriate public education to qualified students in their jurisdictions who have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The provision of an appropriate education under Section 504 includes regular or special education and related aids and services must be designed to meet the child’s individual educational needs. The quality of the services provided to a child with a disability must be equal to the services provided to non-disabled children. A student who is not eligible for services under IDEA may nonetheless be an individual with a disability under Section 504 and Title II and thus entitled to the protections against discrimination, including the right to a free appropriate public education.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)

ESEA requires states to assess the achievement of students with disabilities as part of their state assessment and accountability system and to hold schools accountable for those students’ annual progress toward proficiency. Students with severe disabilities who cannot participate in regular assessments are required to take an alternate assessment with alternate achievement standards.