The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Essay

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)


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Individuals with Disabilities Educations Act (IDEA) is a federal law that is widely considered as one of the landmark steps in direction of providing equal rights and opportunities to people with disability. Essentially the act seeks to provide assistance to state and local governments with an express intention to meet educational requirements and services to children with disability. The first version of IDEA was enacted by Congress in 1975 under the name of Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which was rechristened in 1983 as IDEA (Uradnik, 2002). Since then it has underwent a number of amendments and modifications, with the intention to further empower disable students and their parents. Today, along with No Child Left Behind Act, IDEA forms a cornerstone in government’s educational programs.

Policy framework

The concept behind IDEA was to create an equal opportunity system where children with disability can also avail the full benefits of free public education. At the heart of concept rested the notion that disabled children deserve every possible assistance and help by the government for their educational and services related requirements (Uradnik, 2002).  Before the Congress had passed IDEA, it was a generally recognized fact that American educational system was lacked infrastructure and framework to meet educational and service needs of disabled children. Although states had widely taken up the program of free and compulsory educations of children, the system was still unfavorably skewed in direction of normal students. Educational courses and curriculums were not designed in consideration with needs of disable students, who required a completely different set of environment and mindset. As a matter of fact, many of the public schools did not accept admittance of disable students and those which did, they did not provide any additional facility or training to them (Uradnik, 2002).

One of the principle reasons behind this failure was ambiguity on the definition of disability, which changed from one state to another (Imber and Geel, 2004). Due to lack of any screening or monitoring facility, many students with latent or undetected disability were admitted in these schools where they performed poorly as compared to rest of the students, due to inappropriate orientation of the educational and training programs. By the time their disability was detected, they had lost precious initial years, which further exacerbated their problems (Imber and Geel, 2004). It was also observed that educators were not able to understand conditions and need of disable students and held their poor performance against as mark of their in-attention and lethargy, they had a difficult and humiliating experience in their educational years.

Therefore the primary task before the policymakers was to put together an understanding and definition of disability in order to help the state and local institutions to correctly frame their own response. With this aim the act defined children with disability as (Imber and Geel, 2004).

“having mental retardation, a hearing impairment including deafness, a speech or language impairment, a visual impairment including blindness, emotional disturbance, an orthopedic impairment, autism, traumatic brain injury, and other health impairment, a specific learning disability, deaf-blindness, or multiple disabilities, and who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.”

Policy Response

The act recognized special educational needs and service requirements of children meeting above definition and intended to institute an especially designed educational system where such children can receive not only free and appropriate educational but also learn skills and techniques that can enable them to lead an independent and self sufficient life. It’s explicitly recognized by IDEA that the entire thrust of its effort has been to create an equal opportunity system where people with disability can participate in all the spheres and aspects of work life and society with ease and confidence that normal people do.

However, mere statement of purpose and intent was not adequate to bring forth the foundational changes in educational policy and framework that was essential, if IDEA was to keep its large promises. In 1970, US had around 8 million children with at least one form of disability and out of them, 4 millions were deprived of any educational and development assistance (Imber and Geel, 2004). The state laws of the time exempted these students to compete directly with normal children, and these decisions were even upheld at the judicial levels. There were a number of lawsuits directed against these discriminations in the early 1970s as the situation represented a violation of a child’s basic requirement and defied the concept of civil rights. Following issues were identified in the process (Imber and Geel, 2004):

(a)     Public schools excluded children who had disability.

(b)   The exclusion by public schools deprived these children of complete access to public education.

(c)    There was a strong belief within the government that excluding disable children helped local authorities and state governments to save money.

(d)    In truth, exclusion of children with disability defied the rational of reducing financial burden on part of state governments because the expenditure involved in maintain them as uneducated and dependent adults would levy a greater financial burden. More importantly, denying them education was contrary to the very concept of equality and humanity.

(e)    Exclusion of children with disabilities from public schools constituted a direct violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

It was argued therefore that children with disabilities have as much right to be admitted to the public schools and receive adequate educational services as any other child.

The federal government aimed to address this issue by extensive involvement of local and state governments both in identification and screening of young people with disability and also to cater to their differential educational requirements (Wright and Wright, 1999). It earmarked specialized and individualized programs for each student that would provide them with continuous assistance until they could reach a satisfactory stage of maturity and independence. Towards this end, the government brought together a large body policymakers, education experts, teachers, educational officials, academicians, and parents of children diagnosed with disability to evolve a policy response that could identify the tools and measures through which special educational needs of children gets met on an evolutionary basis (Uradnik, 2002).

The government and the policy makers worked on following principles in their strides to meet educational requirements of children with disability (Imber and Geel, 2004)

1.      Aligning IDEA with state and local educational policies to bring the education needs of children with disability in the mainstream.

2.      Calibrate educational curriculum to the degree where it could reflect understanding of educational requirements of children with special needs while ensuring that their educational development stays synchronized with general educational pattern.

3.      Creating a personalized approach to the educational requirement of children with disability such that their social development takes place in most unhindered and unobstructed possible way. Also implied was necessity of periodic review of child’s development stage so that their personalized care could be further fine tuned.

4.      As parents and teachers are closest to students, therefore, create awareness among them towards special needs of children with disability. Towards this end, necessary training and guidance would be provided to parents and teachers. Parents would also participate in the important decision making process for the children.

5.      Invest resources on providing a conducive, friendly and safe learning space.

6.      Early Intervention strategies to ensure that infants and toddlers afflicted by any disability are not neglected. In many instances early neglect had been the primary cause of further degeneration in a child’s condition and the policy hoped to contain it by drawing in children at the appropriate time.


As the first step, the act expanded the definition of disability to ensure that a child suffering from any disability qualifies for the special education provisioned under the law. Thus the act incorporates conditions including, but not limited to, physical disability such as hearing inability, visual impairment, learning disability, emotional disability, orthopedic disability, autism, attention deficit disorder, trauma due to brain injury, severe depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, asthma, diabetes, dyslexia, asthma, and leukemia.   Moreover, to keep the law flexible, the policymakers placed only a generalized definition in place, which meant that if a child is diagnosed with a disability hitherto unrecognized or unidentified by the act, the child can still get the special facilities and treatments required (Uradnik, 2002).


The first major stipulation of the act has been creation of Individualized Education Program (IEP) in all the public schools. As the moniker suggests, IEP stands unique for each student, and it forms the basis their further education, determination of their disability, recognizes the services and assistance they would require over the period of time and calibrate their requirement scales for future (Douglas, 2000). Schools must put together an IEP team to ensure implementation of these functions. It’s recommended that the team should consist of child and parent, a school educator, a special education teacher and as per the law, at least one of child’s regular education teachers (Uradnik, 2002).

As per the law, the responsibility of schools also includes providing necessary related services to enable children with disability to regularly and comfortably attend the school. These services comprise providing transportation services, developmental services, translator and interpreters, counselors, physical therapists, psychologists and medical personnel (Uradnik, 2002). The law also states if required, assistive devices, such as hearing aids, computers, should be provided to students. IEP also involves the concept of ‘Least Restrictive Environment’ where the educational program is designed in a manner that provides best possible stimulants for the child in his/her academic pursuits.  Schools must make every effort to provide education to even most disturbed children and if it is not possible to accommodate them in normal classes, arrange special classes and facilities for them (Douglas, 2000). The objective is once again to ensure that no child with disability should be denied education opportunities due to their condition.

IEP has been the cornerstone of IDEA and policy makers have constantly tried to expand its scope and depth to extend maximum possible assistance to children with disability. At the time of its inception IDEA covered students from the age 3 to 25. However under 1997 amendment, these restrictions were discarded, and provisions were included to ensure that IEP also oversees a student’s transition from school to workplace (Douglas, 2000). Before 1997 IDEA covered only public schools across US. However after 1997 amendment it’s cope was further broadened to bring even private schools under the program (Uradnik, 2002).

Guarantee of free and conditioned school education is not the only purpose of IDEA. IDEA also sought to include parents and educators at every step in development and care of a disabled child (Wright and Wright, 1999). In fact, the entire education program is required to be developed with consent of parents of a disabled child and if parents feel that school is not catering to the need of their child, they can move to local and state legal agencies to seek rights of just education facility for their children.


There can be few questions to the purpose and ideals behind the law, which are earnestly drawn in favor of students with disability. Congress has also tried to ensure over the time and period that IDEA does not end up being a rhetoric and to this end, billions of dollars have been spend creating a structure that could meet largest possible needs of disabled children. However, the nature and the scope of problem is very immense and expanding as well which leaves even the best efforts made in this direction little inadequate of the necessity (Uradnik, 2002).

Therefore although in their essence,  provisions of IDEA create a fairly comprehensive model to meet education and service requirements of children with disability, the fact that the federal government has sought to carry out its specifications through state and local government by providing them with limite funds, creates a gap between the policy and the implementation. A number of educationists and citizens have argued that funding for IDEA has been far less than required and it is woefully short of meeting the cost of support structure that is often required by disabled children (Wright and Wright, 1999). The problem particularly surfaced during Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Garret F. case, Garret F. was a child who had been paralyzed neck down after a motorcycle accident at age of 4. His condition required supervision by a trained nurse at all the time, including school hours. Under the provisions of IDEA the school was liable to incur this cost but the school administration expressed its financial inability to meet expenses involved in educational care of Garret F. The matter was finally referred by the court to the Congress, urging them to bring amendments in law for providing necessary funds in such exceptional cases. Apart from these, there have many instances when individual schools have tried to interpret their duties towards disabled students according to letters of the law and not its spirit, which has forced many parents to approach courts.

States and local governments have also complained against the funding strategy under IDEA, which often leaves them substantially short of the required amount that is required to implement IDEA in its full scope. State funding takes place according to the following equation

Maximum state award=number of children served*40 % of national average per pupil expenditure (Apling, 2001).

Apart from the fact that this formula speaks of only maximum funding, which is usually quite below than actual funding, it also contravenes the spirit of IDEA as brought out by the Supreme Court in Smith v. Robinson Case that goals of IDEA are to provide complete support and assistance to children suffering with any disability and not the partial and selective implementation of the act(Apling, 2001). Indeed, critics of the act point that the act not only required plenty of words, as put i by Congress, but also money to translate those words in action, a responsibility from which Congress has shied away since decades.


Despite existence of IDEA since many years now, there are still millions of children who remain deprived of its benefits. This marks a collective failure at some point by the implementing agencies, who have, at times, tried to take the easiest approach in their efforts. We have already seen that funding, the single most important factor determining success and reach of IDEA, has remained inadequate through years.

What is to be remembered here is the fact that requirement of a disable and completely dependent child naturally takes precedence over debates, complaints and arguments by policy makers and implementers. The precious time lost in the bureaucratic procedures can, and has, permanently crippled lives of thousands of children. Therefore, in order to ensure that IDEA covers every child with disability my proposals are

1.      Create a federal funding agency to ensure that provisions of IDEA are implemented across every State of USA.

2.      In exceptional cases, where a student may required continued medical assistances, special funds to be allocated for their educational assistance.

3.      Greater involvement of parents/guardians in drawing IEP to ensure that child receives optimal learning environment.


Uradnik, K. 2002. Student’s Guide to Landmark Congressional Laws on Youth.  Greenwood Press, 2002. 254 pgs.

Imber, M., Geel, T. 2004. Education Law. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. 576 pgs.

Apling, R.N. 2001. Individual with Disabilities Education Act. Full Funding of State Formula. CRS Report for Congress. Accessed online on 04/18/2009 at

Douglas, P.H. 2000. Social Security in United States: An Analysis and Appraisal of the Federal Social Security Act. Beard Book.

Wright, P. D and Wright P.D. 1999. Wrightslaw: Special Education Law. Hartfield, V.A. Harbor House Law Press.