As the school year begins, parents of children with learning disabilities or differences are gearing up for what is an all-too-common battle – advocating for their kids to ensure equal access to education. Through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there are numerous accommodations that a qualifying child can receive, yet many school districts do not provide these services unless specifically asked. That makes it crucial for parents and guardians to understand their child’s rights to education and every student’s equal right to access curriculum in the classroom.
For example, earlier this year, officials from the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to the Texas Education Agency saying that the state was illegally setting targets for the maximum number of students to receive special education. According to the New York Times, the target “was set at 8.5 percent of enrollment, and school districts were penalized for exceeding that benchmark, even though the state and national averages had both long been about 12 percent. As a direct result of the policy, regulators determined, the share of students receiving special education services in Texas dropped from 11.6 percent in 2004 to 8.6 percent in 2016 — a difference of about 150,000 children.” Across the country, parents have been forced to take legal action to ensure accommodations for their children.
There are two main avenues for parents to ensure equal access to education for their children – 504 Plans and Individual Education Programs (IEPs). Here’s a quick guide to each:
According to section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, discrimination based on physical disabilities is prohibited, and schools are required to eliminate any obstacles that inhibit students from participating in their education. This civil rights law also dictates that schools must provide extra support services so that students have equal access to an education.
- Who is eligible for a 504 Plan? Public school students with a physical or mental disability that impairs one or more major activities (like reading or focusing) are eligible.
- How is it documented? The school must perform an evaluation to determine how and to what extent the disability limits the student in a classroom setting. The evaluation can include a variety of questions, reviewing the student’s tests and quizzes or classwork within a class day, or it may be a more formal evaluation with multiple education professionals, but it varies by school district.
- What type of accommodations can I expect? The focus of 504 Plans is on how a child will have access to learning at school. For example, it might require that a school provide braille textbooks for a blind student, a sign language translator for a deaf student, or greater wheelchair accessibility in a classroom. A student who has a learning disability or difficulty with focus, for instance, could receive extra time on tests and in-class work, homework extensions, preferential seating, sensory breaks and tools provided by occupational therapy.
Individual Education Programs (IEPs)
An IEP is a formal and legally binding plan, following guidance of Part B of the IDEA dictating how a school plans to service a child’s educational needs. It requires public schools to create a formal proposition for a student that will be measured and evaluated throughout the school year, with actionable goals.
- Who is eligible for an IEP? To legally qualify for an IEP, a student must fall into one of thirteen predetermined learning disability categories that prevents them from progressing in school.
- How is it documented? The student must participate in a formal assessment performed by team of education professionals which includes but is not limited to the parents, the student, school administrators, intervention specialist, occupational therapist, speech and reading intervention specialists, guidance counselor and the classroom teacher.
- What type of accommodations can I expect? An IEP is a customized educational roadmap for the student that by law must contain a thorough description of a child’s current abilities, skills, weaknesses and strengths. If your child needs support services such as reading intervention, the IEP will list how many minutes a week he or she will receive this therapy. If your child needs accommodations and modifications, such as extra time to take tests or to have tests read aloud, this will be documented. It will also list supplementary aids and services to help your child learn in the general classroom, this could include assistive technology such as audiobooks or hand-held learning devices to convert speech to text.
If your child has a learning disability or difference, understanding IEPs and 504 Plans are an important step toward ensuring that your child receives the best education possible. Your first step should be to meet with the teacher or school administrator to share your concerns. You know your child best, and by understanding the basics of 504 Plans and IEPs, you can be a stronger advocate to get them the services that they need under the laws spelled out through IDEA and the ADA.