The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law that secures special education services for children with disabilities from the time they are born until they graduate from high school. The law was reauthorized by Congress in 2004, prompting a series of changes in the way special education services are implemented. These changes are continuing today and they affect the delivery of special education and related services in your state. The IDEA Partnership can help you keep up with the changes and possibly influence future decisions.

The law itself is detailed and complex, but here are some key components:


IDEA has undergone several changes since it began as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), or Public Law 94-142, in 1975. This law originated as a way to insure that students with disabilities receive an appropriate public education.

IDEA has been updated about every five years since its beginnings, the latest of which is the 2004 reauthorization. The reason for this consistent updating is to give us a chance to see how the law plays out in practice, and what we need to do to make it more clear, efficient or effective. In 1986, for example, the infant and toddler component was added, and in 1990, transition planning became a requirement.

Several ideas have become part of the special education vocabulary because of this law, including FAPE (free appropriate public education), IEP (individualized education program) and LRE (least restrictive environment). These concepts have been built into the special education system to insure equal access to education for all students.

In 2006, another change was made when final regulations were released for IDEA 2004. For years, schools were required to wait until a child fell considerably behind grade level before being eligible for special education services. Today, with the release of the final regulations of IDEA 2004, school districts are no longer required to follow this 'discrepancy model,' but are allowed to find other ways to determine when a child needs extra help. This is being implemented throughout the country through a process called Response to Intervention.


The reauthorization of IDEA 2004 (Section 601(d)) states that the purpose of the law is:

  • (1A) to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment and independent living;
  • (1B) to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected;
  • (1C) to assist States, localities, educational service agencies, and Federal agencies to provide for the education of all children with disabilities;
  • (2) to assist States in the implementation of a statewide, comprehensive, coordinated, multidisciplinary, interagency system of early intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families;
  • (3) to ensure that educators and parents have the necessary tools to improve educational results for children with disabilities by supporting system improvement activities; coordinated research and personnel preparation; coordinated technical assistance, dissemination, and support; and technology development and media services; and
  • (4) to assess and ensure the effectiveness of efforts to educate children with disabilities.

Note: The phrase "further education" is new in 2004, as is the increased emphasis on effective transition services to promote successful post-school employment or education.


IDEA is divided into four sections, Parts A - D.

Part A defines the terms used in the law.

"Specific learning disability" is defined as follows:

  • The term "specific learning disability" means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.
  • Disorders included. Such term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.
  • Disorders not included. Such term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

Part B gives money to states to provide services for eligible children and youth with disabilities, including the rules and regulations that states and school systems must follow to receive funds from the federal government.

This section outlines:

  • evaluating children and determining eligibility for services
  • notifying and involving parents
  • working with parents to write IEPs
  • providing services
  • resolving conflicts between parents and the school system
  • providing accessible text to students under NIMAS
  • and more

Part C is the Early Intervention Program for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities. Services that may be included in this program are family training, counseling, home visits, speech-language services, occupational therapy and physical therapy.

Part D helps state education departments and other agencies improve how they work with children and youth with disabilities.

This section provides information and research that informs professional practitioners and families, including:

  • teacher education
  • operation of parent training and information (PTI) centers
  • identification of best practices and promising practices
  • development of technologies
  • public dissemination of information

Helpful information about aspects of the law

A series of documents from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), are available below. Please visit the NICHCY website to access these documents.

LD Online provides the following documents about important aspects of the law:

The law

IDEA 2004 (Public Law 108-446) was passed December 3, 2004 and implemented July 1, 2005. The text of the law is available for download (905K PDF)* and is 162 pages long. Laws are implemented through regulations which tell the school systems, the courts, and parents what each section means. The final regulations of IDEA are available from the Federal Register.

* To view this file, you'll need a copy of Acrobat Reader. Most computers already have it installed, or you can download it now.


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