Legal Issues

Several laws protect the rights of students with disabilities and their parents. Educators, parents, and others who work with children with disabilities should be aware of key legislation that addresses the education of students with disabilities in elementary and secondary public schools and access and participation in the general education curriculum.

The following federal legislation will be reviewed in this section. (This content is informational only and does not provide legal advice. Contact legal council in your institution to learn about the application of legislation in your situation).

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees a free and appropriate education (FAPE) for children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment in the public schools. IDEA applies to children with disabilities ages 3-21 in preschool through high school who qualify for special education services. Essentially, the law mandates that children with disabilities receive specially designed instruction and related services designed to meet their individual educational needs. The law also serves to remove barriers to children with disabilities in regular classroom settings and mandates access to and participation in the general education curriculum.

School districts are responsible for identifying, assessing, and providing services for students with disabilities who require specialized instruction at no charge to the child or family. Once a child is determined eligible a multidisciplinary team which may include the parent, student, teachers, school psychologist, and other related services providers determines appropriate specially designed instruction and related services for the student. Related services include physical therapy, nursing care, speech therapy, etc., that the student needs to benefit from his or her educational program. Services, accommodations, and educational goals are written down in the Individual Education Plan (IEP). The law requires that IEPs include the program modifications and supports for the child and teacher to enable the child to succeed in the classroom. The law also requires that regular education teachers are part of the IEP team.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ensures that any child with a disability has equal access to an education. The law was designed to ensure that any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance does not discriminate on the basis of disability for otherwise qualified persons. A person with a disability is defined as any person who (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, (2) has record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment. Major life activities include walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, caring for oneself, and performing manual tasks.

Section 504, unlike IDEA, does not require the school to provide special education services or an individualized educational program (IEP). Instead, the student may receive educational accommodations, auxiliary aids, and modifications under a "504 Plan", in order to access instruction. Fewer procedural safeguards are available for children with disabilities and their parents under Section 504 than under IDEA.

Reasonable accommodations may include, but are not limited to, sign-language interpreters, modifying tests, the use of assistive technology, relocating services to an accessible location, and altering existing facilities. For example, a student who is blind might speak test answers into the microphone of a tape recorder, or a scribe might write them down. An aide could read the test questions out loud, or a screen-reading device would make the print accessible through Braille or speech output. Reasonable accommodations do not include personal devices such as hearing aids, wheelchairs, and glasses.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires that people with disabilities be provided equal access to public programs and services. According to civil rights law, no otherwise qualified individual with a disability shall, solely by reason of their disabilities, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in these programs. The ADA upholds the standards set forth in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and extends them to employment practices, communications, and other issues that impact the treatment of people with disabilities.

Making a service or program accessible is the responsibility of the insitution. For example, a student who uses a wheelchair cannot be denied access to an educational program because the school does not have an elevator in one of the buildings. Access extends past the classroom to all programs and services made available to the public, such as athletic programs, student services, and extracurricular offerings.


In summary, federal legislation requires that children with disabilities have equal access to preschool, elementary and secondary education. Students who have disabilities may also be eligible for special education and related services to help them access and benefit from the general education program.