What U.S. federal legislation protects the rights of students with disabilities?

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The first comprehensive civil rights legislation enacted to protect the rights of minorities and others underrepresented in education and employment was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. People with disabilities are not specifically included under this law's umbrella of protection. Their civil rights were not specifically addressed until 1973 with the passing of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 of the Act mandates nondiscrimination for people with disabilities.

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 guarantees a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for every child with a disability in the United States. This landmark piece of legislation changed the way that students with disabilities experienced education, mandating that disabilities be better identified and treated and that families of children with disabilities be able to exercise their right to due process. Financial incentives were made available to educational entities that comply with federal disability laws.

By 1990, the idea of students with disabilities in schools was no longer new for most of the country, but some individuals still struggled to receive appropriate services free of discrimination. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed in that year. IDEA articulates the rights of students with disabilities and the services that must be provided to them in elementary and secondary school. The law helped make schools more inclusive and effective in educating students with disabilities. IDEA requires Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities. In 1997, several amendments to IDEA affected student participation in assessment, the review and development of IEPs, and the parental role in the education of children.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 include protection against discrimination for students with disabilities in K-12 schools as well as in postsecondary education.

Differences in legislation that covers different educational levels and types of disabilities can be confusing for those transitioning from high school to college who expect similar experiences and accommodations. For example, in precollege education, Section 504 and ADA cover all students covered by IDEA, but students covered under Section 504 and ADA are not all covered under IDEA; in postsecondary education, Section 504 and ADA, but not IDEA, apply.

More information about the legislation discussed in this article can be found in the Department of Justice publication A Guide to Disability Rights Laws and in the DO-IT Knowledge Base articles, What is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?, What is Section 504?, What is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990?, What is the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008? and What is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973?

Last update or review: January 22, 2013