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The Education Rights of Children with Special Needs

Children who have disabilities may find that the demands of the school environment are difficult. Parents who are advocating for their children need to understand the legal rights individuals with disabilities have. From appropriate accommodations in the classroom to ensuring children have access to special ed services, both federal and state laws protect children with disabilities. Here is what parents need to know as they strive to protect their children’s access to education.


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Which laws protect students with disabilities in the United States?

Several laws may provide protection for children with disabilities. These are:

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – IDEA was established in 2004. It protects children with disabilities and ensures they can access free, appropriate public education. According to this law, all children with disabilities qualify for individualized special education services. It requires schools to provide evaluations for students, create Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities, and place students in the least restrictive environment. It also requires that schools provide opportunities for meaningful participation and put safeguards in place to protect the child’s rights.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act – The ADA, established in 1990, protects individuals with a disability from discrimination. In the education setting, the ADA prohibits schools from denying individuals with disabilities access to services, programs, or activities based on their disability.
  • Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act protects the rights of people who have disabilities as it relates to activities funded by federal means. Since public schools receive federal funds, this section requires them to provide accommodations and modifications of the learning environment to make it accessible to these students. This protects students who do not qualify for special education under IDEA but need accommodations to allow them to succeed in school.

Also, many states have state-specific rules and regulations protecting students with disabilities.

How does a student qualify for disability services at the student’s school?

Professional assessment that identifies a learning disability or a medical evaluation that leads to a medical diagnosis of a disability is all that is required to qualify a student for disability services.

For services provided under IDEA, the student needs to have one of the listed disabilities and show a discrepancy between performance and ability, show limited progress in cognitive areas, or show problems with emotions and behavior. Students may also qualify for IDEA services if they have problems with fine or gross motor skills.

Under the ADA or Section 504, students who have a listed disability may qualify for accommodations or services regardless of academic performance. These accommodations, such as wheelchair accessibility for a wheelchair-bound student, help make education accessible for the student regardless of their differing abilities.

What special needs services are students entitled to if they qualify?

Students with a diagnosed disability may qualify for a number of special services. These include:

  • Individual Education Plans (IEPs).
  • Section 504 modifications of the learning environment, such as wheelchair accessibility for a student with mobility limitations or the ability to use a ball as a chair for a student with ADHD.
  • Access to special education services, including tutoring, when appropriate to help the student succeed academically.
  • Added support to keep students with disabilities in the regular classroom without harming their overall education.

How can parents ensure that their children receive disability services at their schools?

Though students with special needs are legally entitled to certain services, sometimes parents have to push to get those services provided.

Parents who believe their students should receive services, but those services have been denied, can request a due process hearing. This is a legal hearing that pairs the family with an advocate to help them better express their concerns with the school.

If the due process hearing does not work, you may need an education lawyer. An education lawyer can work with you to understand the laws and your child’s rights under them. An education lawyer can also help you appeal the district’s decision. This may help you get the services you feel your child deserves.

Parents are the best advocates for their children’s education. Under the law, all children, regardless of their abilities or disabilities, are entitled to a free and appropriate public education. Reach out to a Rocket Lawyer On Call® attorney if you feel that your child’s rights are being violated and you want to learn more about your options. 

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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