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The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act: Why IDEA is Crucial to Bridging the Gap

Leah Lefler's son was born in 2007 and has a severe-profound hearing loss. He uses a hearing aid and cochlear implant to hear.

Public Criticism of the IDEA Law

Criticism of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is occasionally heard from taxpayers, school administrators, and teachers. The basic premise of the law is to ensure a "Free and Appropriate Public Education" (FAPE) for all American children who are 3-21 years of age. The criticisms include:

  • The IDEA law applies to all children, regardless of severity of disability. Even children in a vegetative state qualify for FAPE.
  • Related services may include medical equipment, which can be expensive.
  • The process of ensuring a free and appropriate public education includes a lot of bureaucracy. The process requires a lot of documentation, time, and money for administrative staff, legal counsel, and service providers.
  • Parents request services when their children are not really entitled to special education under the IDEA law.
  • Educating children according to IDEA is expensive and reduces the school's budget for general education students.
  • IDEA is an unfunded mandate - schools often struggle to afford the level of services required by students.

There are certainly some issues with the law, but on the whole the IDEA is a requirement to allow children with disabilities to have equal access to the curriculum, and an equal opportunity to succeed. In general, the criticisms are not applicable to the majority of children receiving services under an individualized educational plan (IEP). A number of children receive reading supports, speech therapy, and other services to create an environment which fosters success. While the initial services cost taxpayers money, there are cost savings over the long term - a child who obtains an appropriate education is more likely to be employed and become a productive member of society. Refusing to educate a significant proportion of the population (up to 10% of American children receive services under the IDEA) would create a greater economic problem in the long run.

IDEA Success Story

Children with hearing loss who receive no intervention will have difficulty with reading, speaking, communication, and socialization. Our son received early intervention and appropriate services to "bridge the gap."

Children with hearing loss who receive no intervention will have difficulty with reading, speaking, communication, and socialization. Our son received early intervention and appropriate services to "bridge the gap."

Understanding IDEA

To understand the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, one must first understand what the law is not.

  • IDEA is not a way to help average students get straight A's.
  • IDEA is not a law created to siphon funds away from general education students.
  • IDEA is not a waste of time and money.
  • IDEA classification is not permanent for all children. Children may be declassified academic performance improves. Some disabilities are temporary, and a child may no longer require services once the situation is resolved.

How many students are educated under the IDEA law? Approximately 10% of American school children received specialized education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Disability Matters: Legal and Pedagogical Issues of Disability in Education, Paul T. Jaeger and Cynthia Ann Bowman, 2002). Eligibility for education under the IDEA law requires a child to have a disability which affects the child's ability to learn in the classroom. A child must have one of thirteen labeled disabilities to qualify:

  1. Autism
  2. Deafness
  3. Hearing Impairment
  4. Multiple Disabilities
  5. Other Health Impaired
  6. Speech and Language Impairment
  7. Visual Impairment including Blindness
  8. Deaf-Blindness
  9. Emotional Disability
  10. Intellectual Disability
  11. Orthopedic Impairment
  12. Specific Learning Disability
  13. Traumatic Brain Injury

Simply having a disability is not sufficient to qualify a student for services under the IDEA - there must be evidence that the child's disability has a direct impact on the child's ability to learn.

The very first component in the creation of an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) is to determine the eligibility of a child for specialized education. Children who are not deemed eligible will not receive an IEP, and are not covered under the IDEA law. Children who are deemed eligible will have assessments performed to determine the specific needs of the child.

Opinions on Special Education


Children who are under consideration for eligibility for an IEP must have objective assessments performed to assess their present level of performance. A child's academic, physical, and social needs are evaluated with various tests, and the results are compared to the norm.

Subjective observations that may be clouded by personal opinions are not sufficient for the assessment process. Tests with known data ranges for a specific age group are used (for example, the Preschool Language Scale test may be used to assess a preschooler's speech and language abilities).

Many children will not qualify for an IEP - a student who has a disability may not qualify if the disability does not directly affect the child's ability to learn. Likewise, a student who does not have a disability may score in the "average" range and the parents may request services to raise the child's grades. A child who does not have a disability and is simply receiving average grades does not qualify for services under the IDEA.

Children must have a disability and demonstrate that the disability affects their ability to learn to qualify.

Children who are in the preschool age group will have assessments performed on an annual basis, and once the children receive school-aged services, the assessments are performed every three years (at minimum).

Present Level of Performance

Once the assessments are completed and objective data gathered, the child's present level of performance is determined. Strengths and weaknesses are evaluated and compared to established norms. An example of a Present Level of Performance statement would be:

"Billy is an energetic, happy child who excels in mathematics and has excellent spatial relationship awareness. Billy has many friends and actively engages in classroom activities.He enjoys doing puzzles and is a visual learner. Billy struggles with reading and is currently reading at a "C" level and is able to identify approximately 50 sight words. Billy has difficulty with decoding phonetics and comprehending short sentences."

Service Location

Services may be provided in various locations, according to the child's needs. Our son received push-in services in his general education preschool classroom to help with socialization, self advocacy, and to learn how to use certain equipment.

Services may be provided in various locations, according to the child's needs. Our son received push-in services in his general education preschool classroom to help with socialization, self advocacy, and to learn how to use certain equipment.

Creating Goals for the Child

Once the Present Level of Performance is written, goals will be generated to address the particular areas of concern. The goals are not created from a list of available related services, but are generated directly from the identified needs of each student. A child identified with a speech and language impairment who has difficulty with articulation may have a goal that looks like:

"Sarah will produce the "K" and "G" sounds in 3 out of 4 attempts without prompting to reduce fronting errors."

Goals must be measurable, and are renewed annually.

Types of Services Obtained Under the IDEA


Related Services

Supportive services including developmental other assistance: speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy are included in this category.

Location is stated in the IEP - this may be at the child's home, at the child's school, or at a therapy center.

The provider must be appropriately certified (licensed speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, etc.)

Consultant Teacher (Direct or Indirect)

Direct interaction from a consultant teacher helps the student to benefit from the mainstream class instruction. Indirect services indicates the consultant teacher aids the general education teacher in modifying the learning environment or curriculum to suit the needs of the student with a disability.

The child's classroom.

Certified Special Education Teacher

Resource Room

A resource room provides extra instruction to a small group of children. This instruction does not take the place of the general education, but occurs in addition to the mainstream curriculum.

In a separate resource room or in the child's classroom.

Certified Special Education Teacher or a Certified Reading Teacher (depending on need)

Special Class

A class outside of the general educational classroom setting. This type of class teaches a group of children with similar needs in a self-contained setting.

Special Class - not a mainstream classroom.

Certified Special Education Teacher

Special Education Itinerant Teacher (SEIT)

For preschoolers only,the SEIT teacher helps a young child with a disability obtain early childhood educational goals.

Head Start program, Licensed Pre-K, the student's home, hospital, state facility, or child care facility.

Certified Special Education Teacher

Determining Which Services are Needed

There is a great variety of services available to help a child meet the goals listed on the IEP. A child with articulation goals will generally receive speech therapy from a certified speech language pathologist under the "related services" category.

Certain Proof - A Question of Worth

Determining a Child's Least Restrictive Environment

Part of the individualized educational plan requires the determination of the child's least restrictive environment (LRE). For the vast majority of children receiving an IEP, the least restrictive environment is a general education classroom (mainstream classroom). Many children receive speech services, resource room reading help, and other supportive measures and the environment that would least restrict their ability to succeed is the mainstream setting.

Some children have significant needs that cannot be met in a general educational classroom - a child who is non-verbal, non-mobile, has significant medical needs, and requires a level of care and education beyond the ken of a mainstream classroom may attend a special class where the appropriate level of medical and educational care may be obtained.

This is one of the most contended and criticized portions of the IDEA law. there is a great deal of controversy over placing significantly disabled children in a mainstream classroom. The determination of a child's least restrictive environment is fraught with emotions and is a difficult decision in some circumstances.


Many children will benefit from special educational services to a great extent. Many children benefit so much that they no longer require services or extra support. These children are declassified and no longer require an IEP (the declassification process requires objective testing to demonstrate that the child no longer requires extra help to obtain equal access).

Two Success Stories, Thanks to the IDEA

My two sons - my older boy received services for two years before declassification, and my younger son continues to receive services.

My two sons - my older boy received services for two years before declassification, and my younger son continues to receive services.

Our Personal Success Stories

I have two children who have received services under the IDEA law. My older son could not speak and had a severe expressive language delay: at the age of three, he had fewer than 20 words in his expressive vocabulary. He received an IEP under the Committee for Preschool Special Education and received speech therapy services for approximately 2 years. After a lot of hard work and techniques to develop his speech skills, he developed age-appropriate expressive language skills and was declassified. He is now in a mainstream kindergarten class and thriving.

My second son has a congenital moderately severe hearing loss in addition to other health impairments that affect his learning. He received early intervention services and is now receiving services through an IEP under the Committee for Preschool Special Education (CPSE). He attends a mainstream Pre-K classroom and will transition to a school-aged special education IEP next year. He uses hearing aids (purchased privately by us) and a personal FM system (purchased by the school district according to his assistive technology needs on his IEP) to hear in class. He will attend a mainstream kindergarten class with supports from a Teacher of the Deaf. The intervention has been extremely successful - his language skills are age appropriate. Because of the intervention he receives to bridge the gap, he continues to learn at an age-appropriate level.

Teaching Special Education: A Teacher's Perspective

Inclusion Success!

Glossary of Terms

CPSE: Committee for Preschool Special Education

CSE: Committee for Special Education

FAPE: Free and Appropriate Public Education

LRE: Least Restrictive Environment

SEIT: Special Education Itinerant Teacher

IEP: Individualized Educational Plan

PLP (or PLOP): Present Level of Performance

IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2012 Leah Lefler