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Individualized Education Plans (IEP) and Individual Family Service Plans (IFSP)

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

As a practical means of fulfilling the above mandates, IDEA requires that all children ages 3 through 21 who are identified for special education services must receive an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)  and receive appropriate services. IDEA also requires that schools provide any related services or assistive technology students need to be able to get to school, to navigate the school, and to participate in learning.

smiling school kidsIDEA also gives states incentives to develop state-wide, early intervention programs designed to provide special education services to infants and toddlers aged birth until age 3. These tots receive early intervention services as outlined in their Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP). IDEA doesn't require these services, but most states have chosen to participate in this programming. More about early childhood special education can be found later in this document.

Like any Federal legislation, the full IDEA is lengthy, but many parents want to review the law in its entirety. Families can research the United States Department of Education's website about IDEA at and click on "Statute" to read the full law.

Definition of Disability, Impairment and Handicap in IDEA

The Federal IDEA requires that children be identified as having a disability in order to be eligible for services. The law also outlines a list of specific list of 13 disability categories that qualify children for needing special education services. It's important for parents to understand the definition of these labels and why they're used. Each label and term has very specific legal meanings. Parents will want to familiarize themselves with this language so that they can fully participate in the process and to act as the child's advocate. But, the use of these labels is somewhat controversial.

Definitions: Impairment, Disability, Handicap

Many people use the words "impairment," "disability," and "handicap" interchangeably to describe children's special needs. However, these three terms actually describe three different ideas. Impairment describes an organ or body part that is not working correctly or is missing. For example, a detached retina in the eye, paralyzed legs, and problems in brain functioning, are all examples of impairments.

Disability describes what happens as a result of an "impairment". Disability refers to a person's inability to do certain activities the same way as another person without that impairment would do it. For example, a child with a detached retina (an impairment) will be blind (a disability). The blindness is a disability because it prevents the child from receiving information the same way as people who can see. Likewise, a child who has differences in brain functioning called dyslexia (an impairment) may not be able to understand written language like others do (a disability). So the child has a learning disability because he has to learn in a different way than a child without a learning disability. Notice that disability refers to a non-ability as a direct result of an impairment. This is not true of the word handicap.

Handicap is a problem or limitation a person with a disability or impairment has that prevents them from doing typical activities like going to school, traveling in the community, working, and others. However, unlike a disability, the only reason that a person can't do these activities is because the arrangement of the environment makes it difficult to participate; for instance, the lack of a parking space, or a ticket turnstile that does not allow wheelchairs to go through. Another common example is when older buildings require people entering and exiting to climb steps, preventing wheelchairs and their occupants from gaining entry into that building.

The limitations of the environment that create handicaps can often be corrected. If the school installed ramps to the entrances and exits and an elevator in the building, a wheelchair-bound child would no longer have a handicap regarding going to school. Changing or adapting the environment allows all people with disabilities to participate in normal daily life. In fact, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires that most employers; all public transportation; and all public places such as stores, hotels, restaurants, and public restrooms incorporate certain changes to their facilities to allow individuals with disabilities to use them.