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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.

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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 law itself is detailed and complex, but we will review key components of it.

“As a society, we’ve learned that we’re all better off when everyone is included in the opportunities of this great nation.”― Edward Kennedy

The Law

IDEA 2004 (Public Law 108-446) or statue was passed December 3, 2004 and implemented July 1, 2005. The text of the law is available for download 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 to review.


Part A provides basic information about the law including who is responsible to oversee it and provides for the creation of the federal Office of Special Education to ensure that all children with disabilities receive the assistance they legally are entitled to.

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, and providing accessible text to students under NIMAS.

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, and public dissemination of information


IDEA has undergone several changes since it began in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), or Public Law 94-142. The law originated as a way to insure that students with disabilities received an appropriate public education, as historically it was common practice to isolate students with disabilities in separate classrooms or schools from their peers and provide them with subpar instruction and lowered academic expectations. 

IDEA has been updated many times since its beginnings. The 2004 reauthorization is the latest update passed by Congress. The frequent updates allows time for the law to be enacted but also tweaked to provide clarify pieces of the law or make its implementation more 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. For years, schools were required to wait until a child fell considerably behind grade level before being eligible for special education services. Today, 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 through a process called Response to Intervention.

Resources and Supports

The National Center for Learning Disabilities and the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) funded Center for Parent Information & Resources, offer resources and support for families and educators of children with disabilities. Below are a few of the many resources they offer on a multitude of topics.

More Information

For more IDEA related information, review the following documents and websites:

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