By Rhoda Cummings, Ed.D., author of The Survival Guide for Kids with LD
Kids with LD (learning differences) are most successful at school, at home, and in their communities when they have strong advocates. In most cases, these advocates are parents or other interested adults who are knowledgeable about specific legal protections against discrimination of children and adults with LD. Three federal laws provide protections for people with disabilities from the time they are born through adulthood. These are the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
IDEA provides legal protections for children with disabilities from birth through age 21. This includes all school-age children. IDEA was first passed in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Before its passage, children with disabilities could be denied a public education for no reason. Many children with disabilities stayed home instead of going to school.
In 1990, the name of the law was changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Minor changes were again made to the law in 1997 and 2004.
IDEA promises certain rights to kids with disabilities:
1. IDEA guarantees that every child with a disability has the right to a free, appropriate education in the least restrictive learning environment where the child’s individual learning needs can be met.
This means that a child with a disability has the right to (a) an appropriate education, and (b) in the learning environment that is most like a regular classroom. LD is one of the categories of disability under IDEA.
2. IDEA guarantees that schools offer a range of different learning settings for kids with LD.
Most students with LD go to the regular classroom with kids who don’t have learning difficulties. A few students have more severe learning difficulties, and the regular classroom is not the best place for them to learn. To ensure that all kids with LD receive an appropriate education, schools must offer the following types of learning environments:
- The regular classroom. The student may or may not receive special help from a special education or resource teacher.
- The resource room. The student leaves the regular classroom and goes to the resource room for special help in one or more school subjects.
- A separate special education classroom. The student is in a special classroom for all academic subjects and may join regular classroom students at lunchtime or recess.
- A special school. The student goes to a special school instead of the neighborhood school.
3. IDEA guarantees that kids with LD have the right to an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
The IEP is a written plan that spells out the specific educational program for a student with LD. The contents of the IEP are determined after the student is evaluated for his or her educational abilities and limitations. The IEP is written by members of the IEP committee, which meets every year to determine the contents of the plan. The IEP describes what the child will learn that year, how he or she will learn it, and what special help will be provided. Parents are important members of the IEP committee. Other members include the special education teacher, the regular classroom teacher (if special learning modifications are made for the student in the regular classroom), a school administrator (such as the principal), a school psychologist, and any other school personnel who work with the student. Parents must be notified about the IEP meeting and are expected to be active participants.
4. IDEA guarantees special legal protections for the parents of kids with LD.
Parents of kids with LD are welcome to participate in their child’s education and have certain special rights. These include:
- The right to participate in the IEP meeting and have input on the contents of the IEP.
- The right to examine their child’s school record.
- The right to make sure their child’s records are kept confidential.
- The right to ask for an impartial due process hearing if they don’t agree with the contents of the IEP.
5. IDEA guarantees that schools must make necessary nonacademic services available to students with LD to ensure an appropriate education.
These are called “related services” and may include educational supports such as speech therapy, special learning materials, occupational and/or physical therapy, and so on.
IDEA guarantees rights for students with LD and their parents, but only if the student is receiving special education. Students who have learning difficulties but who are not eligible for special education—such as those with ADHD—or individuals with learning difficulties who are older than 21 may be protected by one of the following laws instead.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504)
This civil rights law assures that individuals with LD cannot be discriminated against in any program or activities that receive federal funds. This includes not only the public schools, but other public institutions as well, such as colleges and universities. If programs don’t comply with the law, federal funds can be withdrawn.
Students in the public schools who don’t qualify for special education services under IDEA may qualify for educational services under Section 504. For example, ADHD is not included as one of the eligible categories in IDEA, but children with ADHD can sometimes be served under Section 504. Also, all students who are eligible for special education services under IDEA are also eligible for Section 504 protections. College and university students also are eligible for special services under Section 504.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
ADA was passed in 1990 and picks up where Section 504 leaves off. ADA is a civil rights law that protects people of all ages with disabilities from discrimination. It applies to almost every entity in the United States even if it does not receive federal funds. These entities would include schools; colleges and universities; businesses; public facilities such as local, state, and national parks; medical facilities; and so forth. Also, employers cannot discriminate in hiring qualified applicants with disabilities, and they have to provide reasonable workplace accommodations that do not cause undue hardship for the employer.
Remember: If you are a parent or other interested adult who cares about kids with LD, then having an understanding of these important civil rights laws can make you an educated advocate for these children!
For more extensive information about these laws, check out the following websites:
- The National Center for Learning Disabilities, “The State of Learning Disabilities.” This document, published in 2014, provides extensive—and the most updated—information about LD. It includes an explanation of LD and the law, schools and LD, and LD beyond school.
- Understood.org: “Understanding Special Education.”
- U. S. Department of Education: “Building the Legacy: IDEA 2004.”
Rhoda Cummings, Ed.D., is professor emeritus in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. She has over thirty years’ experience teaching undergraduate and graduate students about students with learning disabilities. The author of numerous articles and books for parents and young people, Rhoda is also the mother of a grown son with LD. She lives and writes on the Oregon coast.
Rhoda Cummings is the author of The Survival Guide for Kids With LD.
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