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Disability and Special Education Laws

Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is a federal civil rights law that gives protections to individuals with disabilities. The law makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities at work, in school and in public areas. Understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can make it easier for you to get your child the help they need.

ADA guarantees an individual with disabilities:

  • Freedom from discrimination at schools that receive federal funding, including public schools, private schools, colleges and universities.
  • Freedom from discrimination in the workplace (with the exceptions of workplaces that employ fewer than 15 individuals.)
  • Legal rights and reasonable accommodations

ADA works in tandem with other education laws affecting individuals with disabilities such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While ADA does apply to private and public schools, it does not specifically guarantee the right to a free appropriate public education. A child who is covered by ADA may not be eligible for special education services.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is our nations Special Education Law. IDEA was originally enacted by Congress in 1975 to ensure that children with disabilities have the opportunity to receive a free appropriate public education, just like other children. The most current version of IDEA was passed in 2004 and it governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities.

The primary goals of IDEA are:

  • Protect the rights of children with disabilities. IDEA ensures students with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), just like all other children. Schools are required to provide special education in the least restrictive environment. That means schools must teach students with disabilities in general education classroom whenever possible.
  • To give parents a voice in their child’s education. Under IDEA, parents have a say in the educational decisions the school makes about their child. At every point of the process, the law gives parents specific rights and protections. These are called procedural safeguards. IDEA includes children ages birth to 21.
  • Infants and toddlers with disabilities (birth–2) and their families receive early intervention services under IDEA Part C.
  • Children and youth (ages 3–21) receive special education and related services under IDEA Part B.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. This law applies to public elementary and secondary schools, among other entities. Children with disabilities may be eligible for special education and related services under Section 504. That’s because Section 504’s definition of disability is broader than the IDEA’s definition.

Eligibility Under Section 504

To be protected under Section 504, a student must be determined to:

  • have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; or
  • have a record of such an impairment; or
  • be regarded as having such an impairment.

Section 504 requires that school districts provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to qualified students in their jurisdictions who have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability. Under Section 504, FAPE means providing regular or special education and related aids and services designed to meet the student’s individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of nondisabled students are met.

Determining a Physical or Mental Impairment

The determination of whether a student has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity must be made on the basis of an individual inquiry. The Section 504 regulatory provision…defines a physical or mental impairment as any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; genito-urinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine; or any mental or psychological disorder, such as intellectual disability, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities. The regulatory provision does not set forth an exhaustive list of specific diseases and conditions that may constitute physical or mental impairments because of the difficulty of ensuring the comprehensiveness of such a list.

Major life activities, as defined in the Section 504 regulations…include functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. This list is not exhaustive. Other functions can be major life activities for purposes of Section 504. In the Amendments Act…Congress provided additional examples of general activities that are major life activities, including eating, sleeping, standing, lifting, bending, reading, concentrating, thinking, and communicating. Congress also provided a non-exhaustive list of examples of “major bodily functions” that are major life activities, such as the functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions… the Section 504 regulatory provision’s list of examples of major life activities is not exclusive, and an activity or function not specifically listed in the Section 504 regulatory provision can nonetheless be a major life activity.