In 1975, Congress enacted landmark federal legislation that changed the face of educational history for students with disabilities. Originally passed as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, this law was amended in 1990 to become the Americans with Disabilities Education Act. The most current reauthorization is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004. Echoing society’s concern regarding equitable treatment of individuals with disabilities, this law mandates that all children and youth with disabilities have access to a free, appropriate public education, regardless of the nature or severity of the identified cognitive, emotional, or physical impairment. Coupled with related early childhood legislation passed in 1986 in the Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments, these laws require public school systems to both identify and provide related services (e.g., special transportation, counseling, and physical therapy) for children with disabilities ages three to twenty-one.
IDEA is directed primarily at states, and six major principles govern its implementation. The first prohibits the exclusion of any student and is referred to as “zero reject.” This principle signifies that schools are required to educate all children with disabilities, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability, such that no child can be excluded from a public education. In addition, educational agencies within each state must engage in extensive efforts to locate, screen, identify, and evaluate all children suspected of being at risk for disabilities. The latter is referred to as the child find system.
Second, identification and evaluation must be nondiscriminatory. That is, the student must be evaluated in all areas in which a disability is suspected, in a way that does not discriminate on the basis of native language, race, or culture. Moreover, schools must use nonbiased instruments and multimethod evaluation procedures, with no single assessment procedure used as the sole criterion for placement.
Third, every student with a disability is to receive a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) without cost to the child’s parent/guardian. As part of this process, a written individualized education program (IEP) must be developed and implemented to provide an individually tailored education. The IEP includes a description of the child’s present level of performance, measurable goals and objectives, an indication of the extent to which the child will not participate in the general education curriculum, the related services to be provided, and a plan for evaluating those services.
Fourth, IDEA mandates that students with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment possible. This means that children with disabilities are to be taught alongside children without disabilities to the maximum extent consistent with their educational characteristics. Schools must provide justification of the child’s level of participation with his or her nondisabled peers in the general curriculum, and they must provide placement options to best meet the student’s needs.
The fifth and sixth principles relate to the rights of children and their parents/families. Due process safeguards ensure the students’ and parents’ rights to information and informed consent before children are evaluated, labeled, or placed, as well as the right to an impartial hearing should a family disagree with the school’s decision. Also reflecting the notion of honoring parental rights, IDEA requires that schools collaborate with parents and students in the design and implementation of special education services. Parent and (when age-appropriate) student input must be considered when developing IEP goals and objectives, determining which related services will be delivered, and making decisions about placement options.
Furthering many of the trends in education over the past few years, IDEA includes requirements regarding student accountability, use of highly qualified teachers, expansion of methods used to identify students with disabilities, and reduction of litigation. Often the topic of contentious debate, IDEA will continue to have an impact on the education of students with disabilities, and the schools that serve them, for decades to come.
- Americans with Disabilities Act, P.L. 101-336 (1990).
- Council for Exceptional Children. (2004). The new IDEA: CEC’s summary of significant issues. Arlington, VA: Author.
- Education for All Handicapped Children Act, P.L. 94-142 (1975).
- Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments, P.L. 99-457 (1986).
- Hallahan, D. P., & Kauffman, J. M. (2006). Exceptional learners: Introduction to special education (10th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education.
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, P.L. 108-446 (2004), 20 U.S.C. 1400–1487. Available online at http://uscode.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode20/usc_ sup_01_20_10_33.html
- Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2007). Exceptional lives: Special education in today’s schools (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
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