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Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a United States Federal law that regulates how students with disabilities are identified and how they will receive special education services through their local public school system. Congress passed the first version of this law in 1975, outlining special education services in the form of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. This law has been updated several times since then, with the last two revisions called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, and the Individual with Disabilities Education Improvement Act in 2004, which is the most recent revision. This article will continue to refer to this law as IDEA throughout this article.

school itemsAll Children Are Entitled To Education

There are six mandates contained within the IDEA legislation that guide what children with disabilities are entitled to, and how students and their families should be provided special education services. The primary mandate of IDEA is that all children are entitled to an education, no matter their level of disability. Earlier in history, many children were not allowed to participate in public schools because their parents were told they were "uneducable" and wouldn't be able to learn. IDEA insures that all children will receive an education that meets their individual needs.

Free Appropriate Public Education

Another central mandate of IDEA ensures that public school districts provide a Free, Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to all students with disabilities. Once again, in the past, some families were forced to pay for a specialized education for their students in a separate, private school. This mandate of IDEA requires school districts to determine what individualized educational needs students have and then to provide adequate educational opportunities for them within the school district. If a school decides that a student needs programming or services not available within its building or district, the district will have to pay for that student to receive those services somewhere else, such as a separate, specialized school or another agency. We describe the process through which children's needs are identified and how learning plans are developed to meet those needs later in this document.


Another major mandate of IDEA states that the process used to identify and evaluate children with disabilities must be done in a non-discriminatory way. Schools may not discriminate against families on the basis of culture, ethnicity, or primary language.

Non-discrimination concerns guide the choice of assessment tools and tests used to determine eligibility for services. Such tests must produce accurate scores for all children who might be tested without being biased towards one or another culture. Furthermore, no child can be identified as having a disability on the basis of a single test score or assessment. Different tools need to be used so as to produce a multi-factored evaluation. Children always need to be tested in their primary language, ensuring that students will not be labeled "learning disabled" simply because English is their second language.

Least-Restrictive Environment

IDEA also mandates that students with disabilities should be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). That means children with disabilities should be educated with other typically-developing children as much as possible, and they should be educated in a setting as close to the regular classroom as possible. Most students in America identified as having disabilities spend at least part of their educational day in a regular education classroom. However, many students need to spend part or all of their day in a separate supportive classroom in order to receive the specialized education they need. If a school district of any size determines that they cannot provide the educational setting or services a youth needs, they are required to pay for the youth to receive those services or education elsewhere. We describe the process through which appropriate educational settings are determined in more detail later in this document.

Parents Are Entitled To Be Involved

Yet another core mandate of IDEA is the idea that parents and students should be involved in the special education process and be included in each step along the way: identification, evaluation, planning, and implementation processes. Parents usually know their child's characteristics, needs, and desires better than anyone else. Parents' opinions and knowledge regarding their child should be valued. As special needs children get older, they too are mandated to have a say in their education. When students understand why they're receiving these special services and can talk about their feelings, ask questions, and be heard, the idea is, those students will be more likely to take responsibility for their education and be more likely to succeed.

Due Process Protection

The final central mandate of IDEA is due process protection. Due process ensures that families have a legal way to challenge special education decisions in evaluation, planning, and instruction and directs school districts to respond to these challenges in a timely and appropriate manner. Due process guidelines also ensure that children's parents and legal guardians consent to their children receiving special education services and are involved in the process.

It's important for parents to understand these six central mandates of IDEA so that they know their children's educational rights.