Definition of Disability and Eligibility for Education Support and Services
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed October 03, 2023
All school districts in the United States are required by law to identify, locate, and test children with disabilities. School districts then have a duty to evaluate the eligibility of children for education support or services. Then, they begin to develop individualized education programs, often called "IEPs," for them.
This article briefly overviews how disabilities are defined regarding special education in the United States.
What Is Special Education?
Special education is designed for students with unique needs. These students might have learning, physical, or emotional disabilities. Special education services help them learn at their grade level in public schools. The goal is for them to have the same chance to succeed as more typically developing students.
Not all students receive special education. Only eligible students with certain disabilities, like developmental delay, hard of hearing, and others, qualify. Special education is aimed to start before elementary school. Early intervention helps very young kids at a preschool level. As students move from middle school to high school or secondary education, their Individualized Education Programs ("IEPs") will help along the way.
Every student who gets special education services will have an IEP developed by that student's IEP team. This program is a statement of a student's educational needs and goals. It's like a roadmap for how the school will help the student.
The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
At the heart of special education law is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. This federal law makes sure that public schools provide free appropriate public education, or FAPE, to eligible children with disabilities. FAPE means that students receive educational services that meet their unique needs without any cost to their families.
IDEA gives protection to students and their families. There are procedural safeguards in place. If families disagree with the school, they can use dispute resolution or demand a due process hearing. These tools help families and schools work together. At the same time, they ensure that the rights of the child to a FAPE are protected.
One big idea in the IDEA is the least restrictive environment (LRE). This means that students with disabilities should learn with students without disabilities to the maximum extent possible. So, if a student can learn in a general education classroom, they should.
IDEA is also about student civil rights. It ensures that every student gets a fair chance at education. Apart from teaching, students might need related services. These can be things like speech therapy or counseling. These services make sure students can benefit from and access special education.
IDEA and the corresponding regulations define disabilities as at least one of the following conditions:
- 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)
These disabilities must have an adverse effect on the child's eligibility for education support and services. The definition of disability and the application of this definition is broader under other statutes.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), for example, employs a three-part definition of "disability." For the ADA to apply to an individual, the person's physical or mental impairment must substantially limit their major life activities.
This person must also have a record of such an impairment and be generally regarded as having such an impairment. Physical impairment can include any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of several major body systems, as defined by the statute.
Mental impairment may include any mental or psychological disorder, such as intellectual disability, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities. Since the definition is broader under the ADA, a child with a disability may request an accommodation under the ADA. The same child may not be eligible for individualized education under the IDEA provisions.
Like the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provisions regarding the definition of disability are broader than those of IDEA. For example, a child with acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) may not be eligible for education under IDEA. However, the same child may not be discriminated against based on their disease. AIDS and other diseases are considered disabilities under the Rehabilitation Act.
Support From Federal To Local Levels
The U.S. Department of Education oversees IDEA. Within it, the Office of Special Education ensures that IDEA is followed. They give federal funds to states and local educational agencies to support special education programs.
The details of IDEA can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). States might also give more guidance in their state law. But state law cannot give fewer rights than federal law.
Other important terms to know include:
- Local education agency (LEA): Usually, the school district
- Public agencies: Groups that give early intervention or special education
- School days: Days when school is in session
Understanding special education law can be difficult. Sometimes, families might need help to ensure their child gets the best education.
Getting Legal Help With Special Education Issues
If you think your child's rights or needs aren't being respected, it might be time to get legal advice. Look for lawyers or advocates who know about special education law. They should have studied IDEA and other related laws. They should know the best ways to help you and your child.
Speak to an education lawyer today.
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