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Understanding Federal Disability and Special Needs Policy

What is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the main federal program authorizing state and local aid for special education and related services for children with disabilities. IDEA requires states to provide a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) to children with disabilities so that they can be educated to the greatest extent possible along with all other children. IDEA was created to help states and school districts meet their legal obligations to educate children with disabilities and to pay part of the extra expenses of doing so.

What are the IDEA Categories of Disability?

The IDEA’s disability terms and definitions guide how states define disability and who is eligible for a free appropriate public education under special education law. The definitions of these specific disability terms from the IDEA regulations are shown beneath each term listed below. Note, in order to fully meet the definition (and eligibility for special education and related services) as a “child with a disability,” a child’s educational performance must be adversely affected due to the disability. The categories are:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Deafness
  • Developmental Delay
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Hearing impairment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment

Read our Parent’s Dictionary for additional definitions of these terms.

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities and transportation. It also mandates the establishment of TDD/telephone relay services. Read the latest version of the ADA statute.

What is a 504 plan and how is it different than an IEP?

Section 504 of the ADA is an anti-discrimination, civil rights statute that requires the needs of students with disabilities to be met as adequately as the needs of the non-disabled are met. A 504 plan is an attempt to remove barriers and level the playing field so that those students can safely pursue the same opportunities as other students.

Section 504 states: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 706(8) of this title, shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance...” [29 U.S.C. §794(a), 34 C.F.R. §104.4(a)].

The definition of a disability is much broader under Section 504 than it is under IDEA. All IDEA students are covered by Section 504, however, not all Section 504 students are protected under IDEA. An individualized education plan (IEP), which is covered by IDEA, is personalized to the child's unique needs and must result in educational benefit. However, the Section 504 plan provides accommodations based on the child's disability, but does not require academic improvement. A 504 plan spells out the specific modifications and accommodations that will be needed for your child to have an opportunity to perform at the same level as their peers. A 504 plan may include such things as wheelchair ramps, frequent blood sugar monitoring, a peanut-free lunch environment, allowance for frequent visits to the bathroom or a tape recorder or keyboard for taking notes-to name a few examples.

Other 504 accommodations examples:

  • Seating assignments near the teacher or positive student role model
  • Seating assignments away from distractions or stimuli, which may include windows
  • Providing extra time to complete tasks, including tests
  • Reducing the reading level of the assignments
  • Providing a structured routine in written form
  • Giving frequent short quizzes and avoiding long tests
  • Monitoring a student’s self-paced assignments (daily, weekly, bi-weekly)
  • Allowing open book exams
  • Reading test items to student
  • Providing peer assistance with organizational skills
  • Allowing student to have an extra set of books at home
  • Developing a reward system for in-schoolwork and homework completion
  • Using timers to facilitate task completion
  • Keeping classroom rules simple and clear

An IEP falls under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and provides educational services. Only certain classifications of disability are eligible for an IEP, and students who do not meet those classifications, but still require some assistance to be able to participate fully in school, are candidates for a 504 plan.

How do I access more information and ADA materials?

The U.S. Department of Justice provides free ADA materials. Printed materials may be ordered by calling the ADA Information Line at (800) 514-0301 (Voice) or (800) 514-0383 (TDD). Automated service is available 24-hours a day for recorded information and to order publications. Publications are available in standard print as well as large print, audiotape, Braille and computer disk for people with disabilities.