In the United States, all children are entitled to a public education, regardless of disability. This concept, enshrined into Federal law in the form of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), forms the basis for special education services offered in all 50 states. This document has offered an overview of the IDEA, and the types of disabilities it covers. The process of identifying students with special needs, and the manner in which their eligibility for special education services under IDEA was described. As well, the dispute resolution process optionsavailable to parents whose children are evaluated and judged to not be eligible for services was reviewed. IDEA language governs where student's special education may take place. Correspondingly, we have reviewed the concept of "least restrictive environment"for student placement in learning and educational settings.
Students who are eligible for special educational services under IDEA receive an Individual Education Plan (IEP). The IDEA also governs pre-school, early intervention programs for "at-risk" families and their children. Pre-school children and their families are offered an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP)instead of an IEP. Some students do not meet the criteria for disability under IDEA but nevertheless are still disabled in some fashion and require accommodation. These students may be accommodated through the creation of a 504 plan. The process through which IEPs, IFSPs and 504 plans are created and maintained was described, as was transitional planning services offered to young adults preparing to leave high school and the special education system for independent living in the community. Although IDEA does not govern the special educational services offered to gifted and talented (G/T) students, these services are mandated by other law and were briefly described.
The stress and frustration that many parents experience while interacting with the complex special education system was acknowledged. Methods useful for coping with and reducing some of this stress were offered.
This document will hopefully provide parents a beginner's guide to understand the special education system in the United States; its procedures and complexity. It is not intended to replace the valuable legal advice of a lawyer specializing in education law, or the advice of educational and assessment professionals who have specialized in special education of children. We hope that parents of special needs children will freely and assertively consult with such professionals so as to learn as much as they can about how best to provide for their exceptional children. Parents should feel confident in their own knowledge about their own children's needs and strengths and feel empowered to advocate for their child to get them what they need.