What Is the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act?

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What we now know as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was signed into law on November 29, 1975. It was then known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142). When the law was reauthorized in 1990, it was renamed and has since been known as IDEA.

This civil rights bill guaranteed a public school education for children with disabilities. It also changed the approach to special needs education by guaranteeing access to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) for every child with a disability.

Later, the IDEA was amended to:

  • Provide greater access to the general education curriculum
  • Provide early intervention services for children from birth to age 5
  • Offer transition planning for teens as they age out of IDEA programs and become adults

This article will detail the purpose of the IDEA, its four parts, which disabilities make a child eligible for services under IDEA, and how to get assistance.

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Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The IDEA is a tool that allows parents, teachers, and administrators to craft school programs that meet the specific needs of individuals with special needs from birth through age 21.

Through the IDEA, a team consisting of parents, educators, therapists, and administrators work together to determine a given child’s challenges, determine what support and accommodations are needed, select an appropriate educational setting, and create a set of specific and measurable goals.

Based on these decisions, they create an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), which is updated at least annually.

IDEA is broken into four parts. Together, these four parts (A, B, C, D) lay out the act’s purpose, guidelines to be followed for school children, guidelines to be followed for early childhood education, and guidelines to be followed for national initiatives.

Part A

Part A of IDEA defines all of the terms used in the rest of the act. It also creates the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). OSEP is responsible for administering and carrying out the terms of the act.

Part B

Part B of IDEA describes all the guidelines and principles for providing services to students ages 3–21. The IDEA provides funding to states and school districts, but it is up to the districts to implement the guidelines and principles.

The six main principles set out by IDEA are:

  • Every child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).
  • When a school professional believes that a student between the ages of 3 and 21 may have a disability that substantially impacts the student’s learning or behavior, the student is entitled to an evaluation in all areas related to the suspected disability.
  • If the child is found to have a disability, the district must work with education providers, parents, and the student themselves (after the child is 14) to create an IEP.
  • Children must be placed in the least restrictive environment possible, ideally in a general education setting with nondisabled students.
  • Both the child and their parents have the right to have their ideas and concerns considered as the IEP is developed.
  • If a parent is unhappy with an IEP and feels their child’s needs are not being met, they have the right to challenge the IEP through due process.

Part C

Part C of IDEA focuses on early childhood intervention. In other words, it provides guidelines for services to children from birth through 2 years old. Specifically:

  • All families with infants and toddlers are entitled to appropriate, timely, and multidisciplinary identification and intervention services.
  • If a very young child is found to have a disability, they and their families are entitled to receive an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). This plan is very similar to the IEP, except it also includes plans for transitioning the child from early childhood programs to school-age programs.
  • Families have the right to take part in crafting their child’s IFSP. They must give consent before services are started.
  • As with the IEP, parents of young children have the right to a timely resolution of any complaints or conflicts related to their child’s evaluation or services.

Part D

In support of state and local IDEA activities, Part D outlines national activities to be implemented to support the education of children with disabilities. It also describes how these activities will be managed and funded.


Any student under the age of 22 may be eligible for services under the IDEA. Children under age 3 may be eligible for early intervention services, while students ages 3–22 may be eligible for school-age programs and services.

To become eligible for services, a child must be evaluated and determined to have a disability that will significantly impair their ability to succeed in an academic setting. These disabilities are listed and numbered in IDEA as:

  1. Autism
  2. Deaf-blindness
  3. Deafness
  4. Emotional disturbance
  5. Hearing impairment
  6. Intellectual disability
  7. Multiple disabilities
  8. Orthopedic impairment
  9. Other health impairments such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or Tourette’s syndrome that lead to limited alertness in the educational environment
  10. Specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia (affects reading), dyscalculia (affects math), or dysgraphia (affects writing)
  11. Speech or language impairment
  12. Traumatic brain injury
  13. Visual impairment, including blindness

However, it’s important to note that disability alone doesn’t make a child eligible for services. The disability must have enough of an impact on the child that they cannot make appropriate progress in school due to the disability.

For example, a child may be diagnosed with a speech impairment—which is a disability under the IDEA—but if the speech impairment has little or no impact on their ability to succeed in a typical classroom, they will not qualify for IDEA services.

If Your Child Doesn’t Qualify for an IEP

All public schools must provide an IEP to students who qualify. You have the right to challenge your school district’s decision, and you can also bring in an advocate to help you through the process. But it may also be the case that your child needs fewer accommodations than an IEP would provide.

For example, they may just need a little more time to complete their homework or a quiet room in which to take tests. When that’s the case, a 504 plan might be a better option.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is intended to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities. It is less specific and restricted than the IDEA, and it might be right for your child if they are mildly disabled in the academic setting.

How to Get Assistance Under IDEA

If you feel your child could benefit from services provided under IDEA, the best course of action is to contact your local school district. Even if your child is younger than 3, the district will be able to guide you in finding early intervention services in your area.

If your child is over 3, your district will be able to set up appropriate evaluations. If the evaluations show that your child is disabled, the district will work with you to set up either an IEP or an IFSP.

Resources for Families

One of the best resources for families seeking information about IEPs and the law surrounding them is Wrightslaw. This is a free, in-depth site with detailed information, resources, and links to information about advocacy, state-level information, and much more.

Another great resource is The Arc, a national organization that supports the rights of people with intellectual, emotional, and developmental disabilities.


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that all children with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education from birth through age 21. Because of the IDEA, your child with special needs may be entitled to many services to help them succeed at school.

A Word From Verywell

While the IDEA was a huge step forward for universal education, it is far from perfect. Every school district interprets the act differently, and every state provides different funding and services.

Chances are that you will, at some point, feel that your school is doing a poor job of meeting your child’s needs. When this happens, you have the right to call an IEP meeting, challenge your district, or even take your district to court. Of course, this shouldn’t be done frivolously, but in some cases, it’s well worth your time and effort.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the purpose of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?

    The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was created in the 1970s to ensure that children with disabilities would receive a free and appropriate education

  • Who does the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act benefit?

    The act provides for early intervention services for children under age 3 as well as appropriate services and learning situations for children ages 3–21.

  • What are the four parts of IDEA?

    The IDEA consists of four parts (A, B, C, and D). Part A lays out the principles that guide the act. Part B describes how the act will be implemented for children ages 3–21. Part C describes how services are to be provided for children under age 3. Part D describes national initiatives to be undertaken in support of the IDEA.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Department of Education. A history of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

  2. American Psychological Association. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (ACT).

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.