Friday, October 7, 2011

Special Education 101, Section A: Overview of the Federal Laws

When we talk about Special Education in America we are talking about four federal laws:
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (§ 504)
Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA)
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)

Any discussion of the federal laws should begin with the landmark 1954 US Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Board of Education, where the Court struck down the practice of race based “separate but equal” schools. The Court held that “education must be made available to all on an equal basis." This case marked the beginning of the recognition that previously limited or excluded populations are entitled to receive the same societal services and benefits as everyone else, guaranteeing “equal access.”

In 1973, Congress passed a sweeping federal civil rights law protecting people with disabilities, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  Section 504 of the Act stipulates that “otherwise qualified individuals shall not be excluded from participating in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination by recipient programs or activities, if that treatment is due to their respective disabilities.”   The law prevents discrimination and gives access to students, employees, and customers of entities that receive federal money, which clearly include public schools.  As a result, today more than 96% of students with disabilities are served in public school buildings.  Section 504 will be the focus of future blog spots.

In 1975, Congress passed a major federal law giving an educational entitlement to all children with disabilities.  The “ Special Education Law” or, as originally passed, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, Public Law 94-142, states that schools must design individual education  programs for students with a disability that affects his or her educational performance,  and provide  any “related services” the child requires in order to take advantage of the special education programs.  Further, the law requires that the special education program be designed to confer benefit.   While the law remains essentially the same today, Congress has passed a number of amendments to the law.   For example,   in 1990 Congress changed the name of the law to Individuals with Disabilities Act – IDEA.  In 1997 they moved the law’s focus from the implementation of special education programs to assuring a quality special education program with measurable goals to show progress.  In 2004 Congress passed amendments so as to better align IDEA with the new No Child Left Behind Act, with greater accountability requirements for all students, including those with disabilities.   IDEA remains as strong as ever today, and is the primary special education law in public schools.  It will be the focus of many future blog spots.

In 1990 Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibiting discrimination in services, programs and activities provided by state and local governments and all businesses, public and private with 15 or more employees.   The law prevents discrimination and gives access to people with a disability not just to entities that receive federal money, but also to private entities.

In 2002, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act mandating that all students, including student groups based on poverty, race and ethnicity, disability and limited English skills, meet specific academic benchmarks.  The law is designed to promote equal academic proficiency.

You may have noticed the common thread that began with Brown vs. Board of Education and continues in this series of laws to this day.  It is equal access, which includes physical access, educational access and access to education programs that will promote academic proficiency.    You will hear a lot about these laws in more detail in this blog, but this very basic overview helps set the foundation. 

Please remember, parents are natural advocates for their children.  It is important to know the law, stay informed and work collaboratively with the schools.  Until next time . . .


Welcome to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation’s (DMRF) new Special Education blog! We saw many of you at the DMRF Children and Family Symposium in August in Chicago. With this blog we hope to bring you an ongoing primer and conversation about educating children with disabilities, your rights as parents, and suggestions about working with schools.  

We now also have a special email address for you to submit confidential questions or concerns. While we cannot give you specific legal advice, and this blog does not constitute legal advice, we can try to address issues that come up in a general and broad manner and offer some useful information.  

The blog will cover the federal laws pertaining to special education, assistive technology, parent advocacy, transition to college, rehabilitative services, and more. In addition to a schedule of topics, we will also share relevant special education happenings as they come up.  Comments and suggestions are always welcome.  We want this blog to be informative and helpful for you! Contact us any time at

The first six segments of the blog will be Special Education 101: A- F