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What is Special Education?



Special education and related services are provided in public schools at no cost to the parents and can include special instruction in the classroom, at home, in hospitals or institutions, or in other settings. This definition of special education comes from IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This law gives eligible children with disabilities the right to receive special services and assistance in school, as well as guides schools, teachers, specialists and parents around special education procedure.

Special education and related services are available to eligible students, ages 3 through 21 years of age. To be eligible for special education:

  • The child must have an identified disability;

  • The disability must adversely (negatively) affect the child's educational performance; and

  • The child must require a specially designed instructional program.


Children who qualify for special education receive instruction that is specially designed:

  • to meet his or her unique needs (that result from having a disability); and

  • to help the child learn the information and skills that other children are learning in the general education curriculum.


More than 6.8 million children ages 3 through 21 receive special education and related services each year in the United States.   

Note: Students with a disability who are not found eligible for special education and related services may receive reasonable accommodations through a 504 Plan.






Who is Eligible for Special Education?

Children with disabilities are eligible for special education and related services when they meet IDEA’s definition of a “child with a disability” in combination with state and local policies. IDEA’s definition of a “child with a disability” lists 13 different disability categories under which a child may be found eligible for special education and related services. These disability categories are listed below:

  • Other Health Impairment

  • Serious Emotional Disturbance

  • Specific Learning Disability

  • Speech or Language Impairment

  • Traumatic Brain Injury

  • Visual Impairment including Blindness

  • Autism

  • Deafness

  • Deaf Blindess

  • Hearing Impairment

  • Intellectual Disabilities

  • Multiple Disabilities

  • Orthopedic Impairment





How do I Find Out if My Child is Eligible?

You can ask the school to evaluate your child. Put your request in writing to the director of special education or the principal of your child’s school. Describe your concerns with your child’s educational performance and request an evaluation under IDEA, to see if a disability is involved.

The public school may also be concerned about how your child is learning and developing.  If the school thinks that your child may have a disability, then it must evaluate your child at no cost to you. The school must ask your permission and receive your written consent before it may evaluate your child. Once you provide that consent, the evaluation must be conducted within 60 days (or within the time frame the state has established).

However, the school does not have to evaluate your child just because you have asked. The school may not think your child has a disability or needs special education. In this case, the school may refuse to evaluate your child. It must let you know this decision in writing, as well as why it has refused. This is called giving you prior written notice.

If the school refuses to evaluate your child, there are two things you can do immediately:

Ask the school system for information about its special education policies, as well as parent rights to disagree with decisions made by the school system. These materials should describe the steps parents can take to appeal a school system’s decision.





What Happens After My Child is found Eligible for Special Education?

The next step after evaluation is the IEP meeting, which is required by law. The Individualized Education Program is supposed to address all aspects of your child’s education.

A number of different people will need to attend the meeting. At the very least, the meeting should include you, your child’s general education teacher, a special education teacher a district representative and someone who can interpret evaluation results. Others who are familiar with different aspects of your child’s needs and abilities — social workers, school psychologists, therapists, or doctors — also should attend. When appropriate, your child may also participate and offer input at the meeting.

To learn more about the IEP meeting and developing an IEP, please read our Special Education Process Page.





What Happens if My Child is NOT Eligible?


Parents of children with disabilities have the right to dispute a denial of special education eligibility.  To do so, a parent can ask for an Independent Consult or file a Due Process.

If a child has a disability but does not need special education services, the child may be entitled to protections under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 is a civil rights law, and IDEA is an educational benefit law.  Section 504 is designed to level the playing field for individuals with disabilities.  Its purpose is to ensure that individuals with disabilities have the same access to education that individuals without disabilities have. It does this by eliminating barriers that exclude individuals with disabilities from participating in protected activities, including a free and appropriate public education. Section 504 says that a child’s disability must adversely affect a major life function. Going to school is a major life function for children.

Differences between Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): 

The definition of a disability is much broader under Section 504 than it is under IDEA.  All IDEA students are covered by Section 504, where as not all Section 504 students are protected under IDEA.  An IEP, which is provided to students covered by IDEA, must be tailored to the child’s unique needs and must result in educational benefit.  However, a Section 504 Plan provides accommodations based on the child’s disability and resulting weaknesses, but does not require academic improvement.  Unlike the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA),  a 504 Plan does not require the school to provide an individualized educational program (IEP) that is designed to meet the child’s unique needs and provides the child with educational benefit.  Additionally, fewer procedural safeguards are offered to children and parents under Section 504 than under IDEA.

Contact us at the THRIVE Center.  We are a resource for parents and other community members to learn more about special education, rights and responsibilities, and the law.

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