Understanding How to Benefit from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

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Understanding How to Benefit from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has been federal law since the early 1990s. Parents and guardians of children with disabilities often cite this act as the reason why their child or young adult is entitled to an education. Yet, these same adults often don’t know what kind of education IDEA entitles students to or how families can benefit from it. In fact, a lack of knowledge can mean that IDEA gets misused, abused, or ignored. Here are a few key ways IDEA can benefit you, your child with a disability, and your family in general.

Creation of Inclusive Education
In past decades, children with disabilities were barred from school altogether. In fact, the textbook Exceptional Children: An Introduction to Special Education, edited by William Heward, cases of exclusion are painfully described. One little boy’s parents were told he could not attend a 1920s public school because he would “depress and nauseate” the other children. Thankfully, IDEA has given disabled children a right to an education, and that kind of cruelty is far less prevalent. However, many children with disabilities remain in self-contained classrooms whether they need them or not, cut off from their peers and normal school activities. This is often because the school, parents, and guardians don’t fully understand what IDEA mandates.

Among other things, IDEA mandates that each student is entitled to a “free, appropriate, public education.” This means that a student’s education must be tailored to strengths as well as disabilities. Students must be educated in the “least restrictive environment” possible–for example, if a disability does not warrant self-contained or “special” education, then that option should not be used. Furthermore, IDEA mandates that a child cannot be placed in special education without fair testing. For example, if a child’s native language is Spanish, she cannot be given school entrance exams in English and then placed in special education due to lack of English proficiency.

These safeguards allow children to be educated along their peers who do not have disabilities. Therefore, these students are more easily able to thrive physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. IDEA, in its best form, is designed to make kids with disabilities feel equal rather than different, which will ultimately help them succeed in school. If you have a child with a disability, make sure your school knows exactly what a free, appropriate education means for him or her, and then insist on getting it.

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Reliance on Parental Authority
Part of the U.S. Constitution is the guarantee of “due process” under law for those who commit a crime or otherwise need legal services. Children with disabilities and their families have committed no crime. Yet, before IDEA, they were usually not afforded due process. That is, a school system could determine the educational path of a disabled child without familial consent, change educational plans on a whim, and otherwise shut out families from their children’s educations.

IDEA relies heavily on parental authority as the first authority in a child’s life. So for instance, no decisions can be made about a student’s education without the consent of a parent or guardian. This includes what goes into an IEP, the environment in which the student will be educated, and even the school where the student will receive education. Under IDEA, parents also have the authority to access their children’s academic and other records at any time and appeal any decision a school makes on behalf of the child.

Arguably, parents have never had this level of access and freedom before. Thus, it should be used to benefit children with disabilities as much as possible. For example, if you have a child with cerebral palsy who has always received one type of physical therapy at school, you can ask that other therapeutic options be explored. The stretching exercises your child has always relied on can be supplemented with actual, modified sports activities. If you would prefer that your child do physical activities at home or in a place like a health center rather than in gym class, IDEA means you can request this and appeal a decision not made in your favor. Similarly, perhaps you have an autistic child who stims. His teacher calls this behavior disruptive and insists he be moved to special education. IDEA, however, means you as a parent have a safeguard. You can request alternatives, such as allowing your child to take “sensory breaks” in a nearby quiet classroom equipped with calming things.

Room for Creativity
Most children with disabilities spend their school careers under “plans”, whether those are IEPs, 504s, something else, or some combination of these. IDEA requires that if something is written in a plan like an IEP, it must be done so the student can have the best, most equal education possible. Many parents don’t know, though, that this requirement gives them a great deal of say in what goes into an education plan. For instance, a child might be given a goal that reads, “Monica will successfully write her spelling words by hand.” However, this goal is missing several components. How often must Monica do this? With what accuracy? Who determines “success?”

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However, the most important thing a goal like this is missing is what advocate Kathie Snow calls the “relevant and meaningful” component. If you were Monica’s parent, IDEA would allow you to address it. That is, you would be able to ask, if Monica can type well on a computer, is it relevant that she learn to handwrite? You could also ask if this goal would be meaningful to her, considering that the other kids in her class often use computers for spelling, and considering that Monica might want to do other spelling activities. Maybe a more meaningful goal would be using the spelling words in a story typed for creative writing. A more relevant goal might be typing that same story, with the same spelling words, in 50 WPM or less. Because of IDEA, parents can now encourage teachers, administrators, and others to focus on students’ interests and personal goals, not weaknesses and predetermined “successes” when education plans are written.

Opportunity for Diversity
As we have discussed, IDEA mandates that all children be educated appropriately, and that all children be examined in ways beneficial to them, such as native language, before being labeled with disabilities. These requirements do more than ensure children with disabilities receive an education, however. They also ensure those same children will be exposed to a diverse environment. A child whose disability means he or she cannot speak no longer has to be educated only with those whose disabilities are similar. He or she might instead be educated with kids who speak, kids who use assistive speaking devices, or kids who use sign language, all in one classroom.

The families of children with disabilities, as well as children without them, can easily take advantage of such diversity. If you know ahead of time that your child’s classroom will have deaf students, considering signing your kids, disabled or not, up for American Sign Language classes in the summer. Seek out inclusive theater or sports programs and talk about the different abilities, as well as disabilities, encountered there at home.

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If your child is the disabled child in a diverse classroom, seek out opportunities to talk at home as well. Perhaps you could talk about the advantages or disadvantages of having, vs. not having, a disability. You could also do creative exercises to simulate different kinds of disability, such as using a blindfold to demonstrate blindness to a seeing child. You and your child can also find ways to show how his strengths contribute best to the classroom, and share them with teachers and classmates.

Increased Empathy
Many proponents of IDEA say the legislation is positive because it encourages students and teachers to treat disabled students with empathy. This is true; IDEA’s “zero reject” mandate means that any child, no matter how severe his or her disability, can benefit from school. Yet, the face of empathy is changing. A diverse and inclusive classroom can help children see classmates with disabilities as equals and friends rather than “special” kids who “have to” be in their classrooms because of a law. Thus, non-disabled children are less likely to see their peers with disabilities as inspirations, especially brave, or in need of constant help. Instead, IDEA means that parents and teachers can help children feel confident around disabled peers. Those peers do need help sometimes, the adult might say. Sometimes it is inspiring to see them do something we think is hard for them. But in general, they’re just being a kid, going to school and living life like you are.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act looks like a complicated law with the potential pitfalls. Understood incorrectly, it can be this. However, once you understand the benefits of IDEA, you can use it to give yourself and your child more confidence. IDEA can also be used to increase knowledge and empathy, not only for students, but for teachers and administrators as well.

Information provided by Nova Southeastern University, a university offering masters of science in education law.


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