The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that all U.S. students with a disability are eligible for a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). This can include special services, accommodations, and/or education. However, accessing such services is often confusing, as students first need to meet state education code disability criteria.
The process begins with a student study meeting (SST), which usually results in a referral for an evaluation. The ensuing assessment report can be used to generate school-based accommodations, support, interventions, and modifications to curriculum, either through an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) or 504 plan. There are independent groups, such as United Advocates for Children, (UAFC), Advocates for Children, (AFC) Disabilities Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), local private special education advocates, and/or lawyers who can help families navigate the due process laws in their state.
What Is an IEP?
The IEP is an individualized plan that establishes goals for eligible students for a period of one school year, renegotiated yearly. It is created at a meeting with the parents, their support team, sometimes the student, and the IEP team. The IEP team might include a general education teacher, an administrator, a special education teacher/case manager, a school psychologist, and sometimes a counselor, speech and language therapist, or occupational therapist. The IEP will identify a student’s current levels of functioning, services being provided, goals for services testing/classroom accommodations, modifications to curriculum, school placement, and if relevant, graduation criteria.
The school district covers all of the costs of agreed upon services. Parents and their advocates need to make sure that the services offered will meet the specific needs of their child. There are state-specific guidelines about district responsibilities and deadlines for holding IEP meetings. The school psychologist or special education director should be able to help parents learn their rights in a particular district or state. It is worth noting that while private schools are not mandated to provide services, some will.
What Is a 504 Plan?
Alternatively, students can often more easily obtain a 504 pPlan, which is generated through the rehabilitation act of 1973. This part of the law protects individuals from discrimination and tends to be accommodation-focused but sometimes contains active interventions. A 504 plan ensures that a child who has a disability identified under the law and is attending a public elementary or secondary educational institution receives accommodations that will support their academic success and equitable access to the learning environment. The goal is leveling the playing field, but it does not provide modification to curriculum.
How Do You Get Help After High School? The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Once the student moves on to college/trade school or the workplace, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) law takes over. ADA and 504 are separate laws but overlapping. As with 504 plans, the ADA focuses on accommodations rather than interventions. They define the rights of individuals with disabilities to participate in and have access to,program benefits and services and forbid organizations and employers from excluding or denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services.
What Services Are Available?
Services available to students with disabilities may include:
• Integrated co-teaching class (ICT). For example, having a resource teacher co-teach a lesson, modeling for the classroom teacher some targeted strategies or accommodations.
• Speech therapy (ST). Helpful if the speech therapist has training in teaching phonological awareness for dyslexic students or pragmatic social skills training for students with nonverbal learning disorder.
• Occupational therapy (OT). This can include assessment of and developing accommodations for students with hypersensitivities or fine motor skill development issues or for students with written expression challenges due to fine motor issues.
• Transportation. Can be provided for students needing to travel to non-public school placements.
• Assistive technology (AT). This can provide gear for students with auditory processing problems or software to aid written expression like Draft Builder or Inspirations.
• Push in service. Helpful if working on transferring executive function skills learned in a resource classroom to a general education (GE) classroom.
• Pull out service. This is best utilized for those students who are not profiting from a GE curriculum and need a specialized curriculum, like a structured literacy approach to reading and writing for students with dyslexia.
• Classroom accommodations. Including preferential teacher selection, extra time, preferential seating, and more.
• Curriculum modifications. Helping students who can manage the GE class curriculum but not at the level of the rest of the class. For example, being in a GE English class but only having to read and do reports on four books during the semester rather than six.
• Testing accommodations. Could be extra time, alternate setting, test read to the student, student dictates answers to aide, and more.
• Paraprofessional (crisis, health, bus para). After instruction in a specific skill, the paraprofessional might continue to work on that skill for additional practice to aid in fluency.
• AT gear. Helpful for students with hearing difficulties.
• Scribe. Provides support for taking dictation from students for tests.
• Special education teacher support services (SETSS). When in mild to moderate special day classes.
• Adaptive physical eucation (APE). For example, LD students with concomitant fine and/or gross motor challenges.
• Physical therapy (PT). For motor coordination issues.
What Happens When There Are Disagreements Regarding the Path Forward?
Parents are entitled to disagree with the proposals offered by their school districts. There are several ways to handle this. Mediation would come first and hopefully allows the parties to reach a mutually agreeable solution. For example, the school might agree to cover the tuition for a special program or certified nonpublic school, if the parents cover the transportation costs.
If the results are still not acceptable a parent can escalate to an impartial hearing, most often referred to as a Fair Hearing. An impartial hearing officer (IHO) presides over this legal procedure; both parties have the opportunity to present testimony and witnesses. The IHO produces a written document with their decision. If your appeal is successful the district is then responsible for covering the costs of all services. If you lose a state fair hearing, you have one year from the date of the decision to file an appeal in Superior Court. (Broitman & Davis, 2013).
Unfortunately arranging services for children with learning issues can be a long and arduous process, potentially expensive, and burdensome to families already under stress. Support, transparency, and clarification can reduce their fatigue and minimize trauma.