Understanding Idea and Section 504

As any parent of a child with a disability knows, one of the greatest challenges faced is that of maneuvering through the maze of legislation designed to protect the educational rights of the child.  From Individualized Education Programs to manifestation hearings, the process can be frustrating and confusing, particularly if one does not have a firm understanding of special education law.

Two pieces of legislation in particular drive the process:  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a 1990 revision of the original Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. The IDEA was amended in 1997, and again in 2004.  The purpose of the IDEA is to establish and enforce criteria that states must follow in providing special education services to students with disabilities.

The IDEA protects the rights of children with disabilities in several ways.  First, it provides for the use of federal grant monies by states to provide early intervention services for infants and toddlers identified as having a disability. 

Next, the IDEA mandates the proper identification and evaluation procedures to be used to ensure that children with special needs receive the appropriate educational services. All children, from birth to age 21, who exhibit a need for special education services, or who are suspected of needing special education services, must be located, identified, and evaluated.

The IDEA also specifies that schools must have a method for measuring the academic progress of children with disabilities.  Historically, children with disabilities were often segregated from the general population and simply warehoused throughout the day.  Under the IDEA, students with disabilities must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) with specific goals and measurable outcomes.

The IDEA also outlines specific disciplinary procedures to use when a student with a disability exhibits challenging or dangerous behaviors.  In the past, children with disabilities who exhibited challenging behaviors were often simply suspended or expelled.  The IDEA outlines specific steps for ensuring that proactive, positive interventions are implemented before suspension or expulsion takes place.

Under the IDEA, children with disabilities are identified according to 13 different disabilities:  (a) autism, (b) deaf-blindness, (c) deafness, (d) hearing impairment, (e) mental retardation, (f) multiple disabilities, (g) orthopedic impairments, (h) other health impairment, (i) emotional disturbance, (j) specific learning disability, (k) speech or language impairment, (l) traumatic brain injury, or, (m) visual impairment. 

Although the IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act often overlap, there are some differences.  Section 504 is a civil rights law guaranteeing certain rights to individuals with disabilities.  This law includes some students that may not be covered under the IDEA.

For example, while the IDEA specifies a specific age range for services, birth through age 21, Section 504 does not specify an age range; rather, it specifies that individuals cannot be discriminated against in any public facility that receives federal funding.

Additionally, while the IDEA protects students who fall into one or more of thirteen specific disability categories, Section 504 implements a functional approach, including students who have a disability, either physical or mental, that impedes a major life activity, students who have a record of having such a disability, and students who are simply regarded as having such a disability. 

Because Section 504 does not categorize disabilities as does the IDEA, these criteria greatly broaden the scope of children protected under this law.  A student may qualify for services under Section 504 even if that student is not eligible for services under the IDEA. 

For example, the IDEA does not include a category for children diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, but these children may be covered under Section 504, if, upon evaluation, it is determined that the disability impedes a major life activity.

It is important that family members know and understand these two important pieces of legislation in order to ensure that the educational rights of their loved ones are properly met.  It is particularly important for parents to understand that their child may still be eligible for services even if that child is not protected under the IDEA.