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Overview of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a federal statute that provides federal funds to assist states in the providing for the education of children with disabilities.  It has its origins in the codification of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 and was revised in 1990 and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Act.  

Who does the Individuals with Disabilities Act apply to?

The Individuals with Disabilities Act applies to children between the ages of 3 and 21 who demonstrate any one of the following physical or mental disabilities:

• Autism

• Deaf-Blindness

• Deafness

• Developmental delay

• Emotional disturbance

• Hearing impairment

• Intellectual Disability

• Multiple disorders

• Orthopedic Impairment

• Other health impairment

• Specific Learning Disability 

• Speech or language impairment

• Traumatic brain injury

• Visual impairment, including blindness

The specifics about what is entailed in each definition are outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Act.  The law states that the federal government must make a free appropriate public education available to "any individual child with a disability who needs special education and related services, even if the child has not failed or been retained in a course or grade, and is advancing from grade to grade."

What does the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act provide?

The major provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Act provide that:

• States and school districts must offer free appropriate public education to all children with disabilities, categorized above.  Those states and school districts must identify, locate and evaluate all children with disabilities to determine whether the child is eligible to receive free public education.

• Each child receiving free public education through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act must be evaluated and must have an Individual Education Program designated for them.  This program will address each student's special needs and must include the parents in outlining and implementing that child's specific education program.

• To the extent available students subject to the Act should be placed in classrooms and educated with children who are not disabled.  The states and school districts shall also provide procedural safeguards to the students and their parents including due process, the right to appeal to a federal district court and the right to receive attorney's fees.

The individual education programs for each student include: transportation; speech pathology and audiology services; psychological services; physical and occupational therapy; music therapy; recreation; counseling services; and medical services.  These should all be tailored to meet the needs of each individual student who falls under the Act.

Reasons for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was enacted in 1975 due to overwhelming evidence that children with physical or mental disabilities in public schools were being ignored in the classroom.  Studies found that public schools in the United States educated only 1 out of 5 children with disabilities.  At that time, many states had laws that explicitly excluded children with certain types of disabilities from attending public school, including children who were blind, deaf, and children labeled "emotionally disturbed" or "mentally retarded."  By 1975 over 1 million children with categorized disabilities were excluded from education in the public school system.  Another 3 and a half million children were "warehoused" in living situations that did nothing more than attend to their immediate needs.


In providing federal funds to education the federal government instituted guidelines that require local school districts to comply with certain guidelines when disciplining students with disabilities.  Students with disabilities can be prone to causing disturbances in the classroom much more frequently than those of able-bodied students.  The question addressed by the Individuals with Disabilities Act is when should the student with a disability be disciplined and how.  

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act a student who is disruptive in class must be evaluated on why he/she reacted in such a way.  The teacher of the student, with the participation of the parents, is required to analyze the disruption and look at whether that specific disruption was in line with the individual's disability.  According to the Act a child who is removed from a classroom more than 10 cumulative school days due to his/her behavior the child is required to seek outside services.  If the student's parents do not agree to the alternate placement of a student then the student may be unilaterally moved to an alternate placement for up to 45 days at a time if the student has brought a weapon to school or to a school function or knowingly possessed or used illegal drugs or sold or solicited controlled substances at school.

If the student is deemed to be a threat to other students then the 45 day removal period may be extended.  This is done by an evaluation by an impartial hearing to determine whether there should be an extension.  The extension may last for another 45 days if approved.    

If a child is suspended for more than 10 consecutive days the IEP team must convene to discuss the education of the student outside the classroom setting.  A school district is not prohibited from suspending a student for another 10 consecutive days but only if educational services are provided for the student.  If it is determined that the infractions that led to the suspension are not due to the disability of the child then the child may be suspended for a longer period of time in line with an equal suspension that would be given to a non-disabled student.

How are these protections enforced?

The Individuals with Disabilities Act does provide safeguards to insure that the rights of a student with disabilities are protected from arbitrary suspensions and discipline from a school district.  The IDEA guarantees a number of safeguards to the parents of students with disabilities which include: the right to be informed of the procedural safeguards; right to see his/her child's education records; the right to be a member of the IEP team; to participate in their child's education; to file complaints with the state education agency; and the right to request independent mediation involving aspects of their child's education.


There are many arguments involved with the IDEA.  Complaints from teachers and school administrators include the failure of the government to provide appropriate funding and that the time spent by teachers to take part in IEPs are time that can be spent developing teaching methods and that non-disabled students pay the price for the increased attention that disabled students are allotted under the law.

Taxpayers often criticize the Act because it provides a free public education to all students with disabilities and there is no limit to the extent of the disability.  The argument is that even students who have little to no cognitive abilities qualify for free government paid education as well as expensive medical treatments associated with that education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and "No Child Left Behind"

In 2004 the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was amended to align itself with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.  The amended act provisions have come under fire because they require that children with disabilities achieve certain goals in the classroom.  Many complain that the disabilities themselves prevent any continuous forward progress in education.