Overview of Laws Impacting Students with Disabilities

Four Federal Laws affect students with disabilities.   Two are civil rights laws meant to prevent discrimination in school settings and in the community.

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that students with disabilities have equal access to educational services. For students who qualify, an individualized 504 Plan is developed that provides modifications and accommodations to ensure that the student receives an education comparable to non-disabled students. Section 504 also applies to extracurricular activities (like after-school activities on school grounds and school-sponsored clubs).   All students who have a disability that affects their education are covered under Section 504.  However, 504 Plans are generally developed for students with milder delays who do not qualify under IDEA’s eligibility criteria.
  • The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also bars discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, public transportation, government services, and places where the public gathers for a service or activity (like restaurants, stores, libraries, parks and schools). ADA’s application to students with disabilities is generally in providing information in alternate formats (like American Sign Language or Braille), modifying tests, and improving accessibility by redesigning equipment or building features.
  • The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the privacy of student records for all public school students. It gives parents the right to review their child’s education records and request changes in the record, when appropriate. (See more under School Records).
  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the education law passed by Congress in 1975 that first defined special education and spelled out what schools must provide to students with disabilities. Special education is specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parent, to meet the unique needs of a student with a disability. IDEA provides a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to children who, because of a qualifying disability, need special education and related services to benefit from education.

Like Section 504, IDEA requires an unbiased evaluation to determine needs and eligibility, an individualized educational program, and service provision in the least restrictive environment. Unlike Section 504 and ADA, IDEA provides partial federal funding for the costs associated with educating students with disabilities. IDEA also offers more safeguards to ensure that parents are included in decision-making and have more options to resolve conflicts around their child’s identification, evaluation, program, placement or discipline. This Guide is primarily meant as a reference to parents whose children are currently, or may become, eligible for special education under IDEA.

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