The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed in 1975, is an influential and sweeping piece of education reform that had significant impact for young students with disabilities. The IDEA set forth guidelines for accommodations in schools for students ages three through twenty-one that still serve as the cornerstone for our approach to education for students with disabilities- notably by requiring access to a “free and appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment” possible.
Prior to IDEA, no legislation specifically addressed access to education for people with disabilities; in fact, prior to the 1970s, no legislation specifically addressed the civil rights of people with disabilities (Aron and Loprest). In 1973, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act banned discrimination against people with disabilities for entities receiving federal funding, which included public schools (ibid). Section 504’s definition of disability is broad, including “any person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment” (ibid).
Two years later, IDEA was passed, known then as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Previous laws like Section 504 and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, as well as litigation in cases like Mills v. Board, provided for “negative rights,” meaning rights that prevented entities from doing something to an individual; IDEA provided for more positive rights, meaning rights that entitle the individual to receive something. While 504 requires that schools don’t discriminate, IDEA requires that schools actively seek out, identify, and accommodate children with disabilities (Fleischer and Zames 184).
Despite IDEA’s seemingly more active protection of the rights of students with disabilities, its definition of disability is much more narrow than Section 504’s. IDEA covers children with particular disabilities specified in the law, including children “with mental retardation, hearing impairments, speech or language impairments, visual impairments, serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities” (“Public”). Further, in order to receive IDEA accommodations, the child’s need for special education services must be directly connected to said disability (ibid).
IDEA does enforce several principles, though, that are intended to guide special education services to be appropriate to the student. IDEA requires that all students be provided with a “free and appropriate public education,” meaning that the student’s family is not required to pay and services are tailored to the individual need of the student. IDEA also calls for “individualized education plans,” or IEPs. An IEP is a document of services and plans designed to best serve the student. It is created by a team of teachers, parents, and in some cases, the student. Furthermore, IDEA encourages education in the “least restrictive environment” that is appropriate for the student. If a student can do well in a general education classroom setting, then they are to be placed in that educational setting. IDEA ensures that students and parents are involved in the student’s education and provides evaluations and safeguards to ensure that the student has access to a quality education (Brown). Since IDEA’s passage in 1975, significant changes have improved the quality of education for students with disabilities.
Aron, Laudan and Pamela Loprest. “Disability and the Education System.” Futureofchildren.org. The Future of Children, Spring 2012. Web. 5 Aug. 2013.
Brown, Pat. “IDEA and No Child Left Behind: Conflicting Interests?” Lecture. 23 Apr. 2013.
Fleischer, Doris Zames and Freida Zames. The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. Print.
“Public Law 108-446.” IDEA.ed.gov. U.S. Department of Education, n.d. Web. 6 Aug. 2013.