The Big I-D-E-A

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The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the primary federal law governing the education of students with disabilities. IDEA is divided into four parts:

  • Part A lays out the basic foundation for the rest of the Act by defining terms and creating the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), which is responsible for administering IDEA.
  • Part B applies to children of preschool age (beginning at age three) through 12th grade (up to age 21).
  • Part C applies to children under the age of three who may be eligible for Early Intervention services.
  • Part D describes national activities to improve the education of students with disabilities.

IDEA is sometimes referred to as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act – IDEIA – because of the renaming of the Act in 2004 when it was most recently amended. Most people still refer to it as IDEA, though. Another law pertaining to the education of students with disabilities is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is discussed elsewhere in the CAR Autism Roadmap™.

Part B

Part B relates to the education of children beginning at age three until they finish high school. Thus it applies to students in preschool as well as primary and secondary (high) school. Students with disabilities receive preschool services until age five, and they may extend to age six in some circumstances. Students may stay in high school until the end of the school year in which they turn 21, so long as they don’t graduate before then.

The main principles of Part B include:

  • Every student is entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).
  • The education and services for students with disabilities must be provided in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). This means that most students with disabilities will be educated alongside their non-disabled peers.
  • Schools have an obligation to identify students who may need special education services.  This is called Child Find. The school must evaluate any student who may have a disability that has a substantial impact on the student’s learning or behavior. The evaluation must be in all areas related to the suspected disability. Either the school or the parents can request an evaluation.
  • Every student with a disability (as defined by the Act) will receive services and supports, which will be set out and explained in an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP will summarize the student’s needs and set forth goals for the student to make progress.
  • Procedural Safeguards protect the rights of parents and students in the special education system. In particular, parents have the right to be a member of evaluation and IEP teams. Evaluations and services cannot take place without parental consent. If parents disagree with services or have other complaints with the special education system, there are dispute resolution procedures.

Part C

Part C establishes Early Intervention for children under the age of three who have developmental delay. Each state is allowed to define “developmental delay,” and definitions vary from state to state. The main principles of Part C include:

  • Early Intervention providers have an obligation to identify children who may need Early Intervention services. This is called Child Find. These children are entitled to a multidisciplinary evaluation. Parents may also refer their own child for an evaluation.
  • Children who are found to have a developmental delay will receive an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). In addition to summarizing the child’s needs and setting forth goals for the child, the IFSP will also address the needs of the family as a whole, including training and other support. One service which must be included is a service coordinator, who will assist the family in coordinating services and will be a single point of contact for each family.
  • Services are provided in the Natural Environment. This means that the child will receive services and supports wherever the child spends time, including, most often, in the home or at daycare.
  • Procedural Safeguards protect the rights of parents and children in the Early Intervention system. In particular, parents have the right to be a member of evaluation and IFSP teams. Evaluations and services cannot take place without parental consent. If parents disagree with services or have other complaints with the special education system, there are dispute resolution procedures.

Note that under Part C, there is no right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education, as there is in Part B. States may choose to charge families for Early Intervention services. Some states do (such as New Jersey), others do not (such as Pennsylvania).

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Last Updated: November 28, 2016

The Center for Autism Research and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia do not endorse or recommend any specific person or organization or form of treatment. The information included within the CAR Autism Roadmap™ and CAR Resource Directory™ should not be considered medical advice and should serve only as a guide to resources publicly and privately available. Choosing a treatment, course of action, and/or a resource is a personal decision, which should take into account each individual's and family's particular circumstances.


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