Defining the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

How this federal law serves special needs students

African American paraplegic student performing experiment in science classroom. Credit: Disability Images / Getty Images

What is the definition of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)? Learn more about this federal law and how it benefits special needs students with this overview.

What IDEA Says

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is the federal law that outlines rights and regulations for students with disabilities in the United States who require special education. Under the IDEA, all children with disabilities are entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least-Restrictive Environment (LRE), and some are entitled to Early Intervention (EI) and Extended School Year (ESY).

The law specifies how schools must provide or deny services, and how parents can fight school districts for them. If your child has a learning disability, disorder or special needs, it's important that you familiarize yourself with IDEA. If the language contained in the legislation contains too much jargon for you, you can ask a special education advocate or another person familiar with special education law to explain it to you. 

Teachers in the special education program at your child's school may also be good sources to ask about IDEA. The U.S. Department of Education sums up IDEA in simple terms on its website. It notes that the law specifies how "states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities."

IDEA also allows parents of children age 2 and under to obtain early intervention services.

Meanwhile, parents of older children, those between the ages of 3 and 21, receive special education and related services under the law.

Why IDEA Matters

IDEA is important because it allows students with disabilities to get the education they need to thrive. In the case of small children with disabilities, IDEA allows parents to access the services necessary to prevent learning disabilities and other disorders from completely derailing a child's academic career.

Thanks to early intervention programs, parents of children with autism can receive services that help these children with communication and other interpersonal skills from an early age.

Once children are in school, IDEA mandates that teachers and school officials take their specific needs into account. Children with learning disabilities can't simply be ignored or overlooked in public schools because federal law mandates that schools must take action to serve them. IDEA also gives parents tools to fight back if they believe a school or a school district is neglecting their child's needs.

IDEA Isn't Perfect

While IDEA sets out to prevent children with special needs from being discriminated against, it is not a perfect law. Parents of children with learning, physical disabilities and other challenges routinely complain that they think schools cut costs and take other adverse measures that negatively affect their child's access to a free and appropriate education.

If you think that your school is in violation of IDEA, contact your special education advocate, a lawyer or the U.S. Department of Education.

Joining organizations made up of parents of children with special needs can give you the support needed to navigate your school district's special education program. 

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