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An Overview of Education Support and Services for Students With Disabilities

In America, all students, including those with special needs, have the right to education. This country is filled with laws and systems to help students with disabilities get the support they need. Special education is a type of teaching that's designed for students with special needs. Special education helps these learners get the most out of their school experience.

This article provides a brief overview of various special education laws in the United States.

Individuals With Disabilities Education Act

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which became law in 1975, was a game-changer for students with disabilities. This law meant that public schools had to offer free and suitable education to all students, no matter their needs.

Later, this law became known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. The federal government, under U.S. Code Title 20, Chapter 33, ensures rights to students with disabilities and their families through IDEA. IDEA governs all states that accept federal funding.

IDEA is a central part of education law. The defining purpose of IDEA is to guarantee students a free appropriate public education (FAPE). This education should prepare students for further education, employment, and independent living. 

FAPE, guaranteed to those children with disabilities aged three to 21, includes an educational program that is individualized to the specific child. This is called an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. This program is designed to meet that child's unique needs and provide them access to the general curriculum. These programs meet the grade-level standards established by the state.

Education support and service laws also call for the student's parents to be an integral part of their child's education. IDEA ensures that the parents of students with disabilities have the following rights:

  • To be informed of their procedural safeguards in writing (a booklet is available)
  • To review all educational records
  • To be equal members of the IEP team alongside the educational faculty
  • To be a part of all aspects of their child's education plan
  • To have their complaints heard by the state education agency
  • To request mediation or a due process hearing
  • To suggest an alternative IEP and call witnesses
  • To hearings that are Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) hearings and can be appealed

Under special education law, every student with disabilities in public schools has an IEP. An IEP is a unique plan created for each student based on their individual needs.

Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

Under education laws, every child who qualifies for education support and services is assigned an IEP. It specifies the services to be provided and how often. The IEP describes the student's present levels of performance. It also details how the student's disabilities affect the student's academic performance. The IEP specifies accommodations and modifications to be provided for the student. Every faculty member, including classroom teachers, must follow this plan.

The IEP helps special education teachers know how to support their students' needs. If you're not sure the IEP is working for your student, an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) may be useful. An IEE can be like a second opinion on the student's IEP. It helps make sure the program fits the student's needs.

The IEP must include a design that meets the child's needs in the least restrictive environment appropriate to that child. When your child qualifies for special education services, an IEP team is created to develop a detailed written description of the child's IEP.

The IEP team must meet every year to reevaluate and continue developing the child's IEP based on the child's changing needs. This team must include at least one of the child's regular classroom teachers and:

  • A teacher specializing in disability support and services
  • The parents of the student
  • Someone who will analyze the educational implications of the child's evaluation, usually a psychologist
  • An administrator who is familiar with what services are available in the district and can make those services available to the child
  • A representative of the local education agency (LEA) who is qualified to provide or supervise the provision of specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of children with disabilities. This representative should be knowledgeable about the general education curriculum and knowledgeable about the availability of resources of the LEA
  • At the discretion of the parent or the agency, other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel as appropriate
  • Whenever appropriate, the child with the disability

As mentioned, parents are considered to be equal members of the IEP team, as ensured by their fundamental parental rights. As such, parents may prepare an IEP of their own if they feel the school's IEP is not fair to their child.

The format of IEPs will vary among different school districts, but they all must contain the same basic information:

  • A description of the child's current academic achievement and functional performance in school
  • Measurable annual goals structured to meet the child's educational needs
  • The situation and services needed to provide the child with the free appropriate public education
  • Considerations of vocational, placement, and transitional needs for a child who is 16 or older
  • The parent's right to take any dispute with the child's school district to a neutral third party for a resolution

For more information on IEPs, read How to Prepare for IEP Meetings.

Eligibility for IDEA services

Your school district is required by law to identify and evaluate students with disabilities. Education support and services laws have certain requirements for students to be eligible for IDEA services. Children are entitled to IDEA rights if they are between the ages of three and 21 and have any of the following:

  • Autism
  • Deafness
  • Deaf-Blindness
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Hearing impairment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Speech-language impairment
  • Visual impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Specific learning disability (SLD) such as dyslexia
  • Other health impairments, subject to approval

Suppose your child has one or more of these impairments, and there is evidence that their impairment(s) adversely affects their academic performance. In that case, they qualify for individualized education under IDEA. When your child is found eligible for education support and services, they should be reevaluated every three years.

Adjustments to an IEP should be made accordingly. You are entitled to have your child evaluated more often if the need arises. You can also get outside or independent assessments.

Special Education Federal Laws

Federal laws, like IDEA, protect the education rights of students with disabilities, but there are also civil rights laws to protect these students. One important law is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA makes sure students with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.

Another important law is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which includes Section 504. Section 504 protects students with disabilities from discrimination. That means schools can't treat students unfairly just because they have a disability.

All of these rules apply to public schools, but what about private schools? They have to follow some of these laws, including the ADA, but private schools don't always have to provide the same level of special education services as public schools.

Stay Current on Education Support and Service Laws

IDEA is a law whose interpretation is changing. Changes may affect the qualifications of the teachers and their teaching methods. It can also affect transitional services and the various aspects of IEPs. It is important that you stay current on those changes as they could affect you and your child. You can research and read through the statute itself: U.S. Code Title 20, Chapter 33.

Your school district is required to give you a copy of the federal and state statutes, as well as any other relevant policies, so be sure to request this information, the school's IEP form, and any other parent guides. Many communities have local parent support groups that offer support and information for parents of children with disabilities. Another good resource is the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Education and Rehabilitative Services.

Your state Department of Education is a good source of information as well, and many keep recent changes in laws on their website. All states are required to follow IDEA and are permitted to provide even more protection and services to students than IDEA requires. Any of these additional protections should be included on your state Department of Education's website. If there is no information there, your school district can give you contact information for the state Department of Education.

Get Help From a Legal Professional

Sometimes, understanding and navigating these laws and rights can be challenging for students and their families. This is where legal help can come in handy. There are lawyers who concentrate in special education. They can help ensure your education rights are being respected. They can assist you in creating or reviewing your IEP. They can also help you understand the difference between public and private school obligations.

Talk to an education attorney about your case today.

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