Resource Guide for Parents of
Students with Disabilities
Understanding ADA, Section 504, IDEA and IEP

Meet the Experts

Sivan Tuchman Research analyst, Center on Reinventing Public Education Read bio
Kathy Sarin School psychologist, NW Assessment and Advocacy Read bio
Richard Horowitz Co-founder, Growing Great Relationships Read bio
Kara Ayers Associate director, University of Cincinnati Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Read bio

Written by…

Kenya McCullum Read bio

Students with disabilities face unique challenges, and there are laws in place to ensure that school districts give them the assistance they need. To determine if these needs are being met, parents should familiarize themselves with the laws and know their rights if their children aren’t being given the protections they’re entitled to. In this guide, readers will find information about the rights of students who have disabilities and what schools are required to provide so they have equal opportunity for academic success.

Protections for Students with Disabilities

There are several laws that have been passed to ensure that students with disabilities aren’t discriminated against or deprived of the help they need to be successful academically. The following section explores those laws.

One of the cornerstones of the legislation that protects students with disabilities is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, or ADA, which is a federal law designed to provide equal opportunities for those who have disabilities by prohibiting discrimination in areas such as government, commercial business, transportation, employment and telecommunications. Under the law, any person who has a mental or physical impairment limiting their life activities is provided with accommodations as needed so they can participate in these activities.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act is a civil rights law that states that you cannot discriminate against individuals on the basis of disability, and it applies to schools as well as all other places open to the public,” explains Sivan Tuchman, research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. “We often think of the ADA as the law that makes sure there are ramps and elevators available.”

In addition to things like ramps and elevators, under the ADA, schools are required to provide accommodations including assistive listening devices, private feedback from teachers about academic performance, Braille textbooks, qualified interpreters, real-time captioning, wheelchair accessible bathrooms and school buses, extra time to complete assignments and exams, note takers and assistive computer software. The law also allows students to receive needed accommodations for activities they participate in off campus, such as sports leagues and camps.

The ADA also requires that accommodations are provided to students with disabilities when they take standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, ISEE and SSAT. Some of these accommodations include test booklets in Braille or large text, extended time, scribes, screen reading devices, wheelchair-accessible testing stations and permission to bring needed medications.

Schools must provide accommodations for parents who have disabilities, so they can participate in activities like parent-teacher conferences.

Like the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provides protections for K-12 students who have disabilities by ensuring they’re treated like their counterparts who don’t have physical and mental limitations.

“For students with a learning disability, this may mean getting extra time on a test; for students in the hospital due to extended illness, it may mean having work provided to them,” Tuchman says.

Under this anti-discrimination law, students with a variety of disabilities and illnesses must be given necessary tools to meet their needs in the classroom, so they can enjoy the same benefits as other students. As a result, students who have physical and mental disabilities — as well as those with illnesses like cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, digestive disorders, cardiovascular disease, epilepsy and asthma — can receive accommodations such as books with enlarged print, taped lectures, highlighted textbooks, preferred seating assignments, computer-aided instruction and behavior intervention plans. Also, as with the ADA, under Section 504, students with the named disabilities and health conditions must have equal access to extracurricular activities like clubs, athletic teams and field trips.

To receive the benefits afforded by Section 504, students are evaluated to determine if they have a mental or physical condition that substantially limits their major life activities. To begin this process, a referral must be made by a parent, teacher or doctor to have a 504 committee at the school initiate an evaluation. During the assessment, committee members review the student’s grades and test scores, notes and disciplinary reports from teachers, health and attendance records and information from parents and doctors. The student is also observed during this process.

Once it’s decided a student is eligible for Section 504 accommodations and modifications, a written plan is created detailing what the school is required to provide. These plans are reviewed on a yearly basis to evaluate whether the accommodations are still adequate for the student’s needs. And every three years, children are re-evaluated to determine their current needs.

In addition, Section 504 requires that school districts implement a grievance procedure so parents can make a complaint if they feel their child has been discriminated against. Generally, this procedure involves a parent filing a grievance with the child’s school or a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education and then going through a hearing process.

Just as the ADA and Section 504 guarantee that students with disabilities receive the accommodations they need, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is designed to ensure they have access to appropriate education programs tailored to their needs.

“This law states that your child is entitled to a free, appropriate public education. Also, as much as possible, your child should be educated with non-disabled peers, says Kathy Sarin of NW Assessment and Advocacy. “There are many discipline protections and procedures for your child as well. Under this law, parents have the right to participate meaningfully when decisions are being made about how to educate their children.”

To comply with this law, which passed in 1975, schools provide special education for free to students who have disabilities such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD, visual or hearing impairments, traumatic brain injury, speech or language impairments, developmental delays or emotional disturbances.

School districts are first required to identify students that may have a disability and confirm it by providing an evaluation at no cost to the children’s parents. After an evaluation is complete, schools must place students with disabilities in the appropriate classes and offer additional services, like speech therapy or counseling, as needed. If students don’t need special education but should have specific accommodations, the school arranges to provide them.

Also, under the IDEA, parents can be active participants in the decision-making process. For example, if parents believe their children should be evaluated to receive special education and the school denies their request, IDEA has a due process system in place so they can get a hearing and present their case before a qualified, independent officer. Similarly, the act gives parents the right to refuse certain services if they don’t feel they’re appropriate. As a result, schools must get permission from parents before initiating evaluations or placing children into special education classes.

After an evaluation determines that a student should be placed in special education courses, or receive special services, the law mandates that an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, document be created.

“The IEP is the legal document that delineates what services and for what duration, accommodations and modifications, transitional planning and other important pieces of the child’s educational experience,” says Janet Ferone, M.Ed., President of Ferone Educational Consulting. “It will outline the current performance level of the student and specific goals and objectives to be addressed during the upcoming school year. Parents are included in the development of the IEP and are asked to state their vision for their child.”

A team of experts — including general and special education teachers, representatives from the school district who have expertise on disabilities and special education curriculum, and workers from transition services agencies — work closely with parents to draft a plan that meets students’ specific needs. In addition, students who are at least 16 years old can also have input about their IEP.

During the IEP meeting, there are discussions about a child’s condition and strengths, what their education needs are and what should be done to meet those needs. The meeting establishes measurable, realistic and achievable goals for the student to meet during the school year.

The culmination of this conference is a document that outlines the accommodations, education classes and extracurricular activities the school will provide to help the student achieve the established education goals. The plan also describes how the student’s progress will be measured so the school can meet its legal obligation to keep parents apprised of their child’s performance.

To address the changing needs of each student, an IEP meeting is conducted annually. However, parents don’t have to wait a year if they feel their child’s needs aren’t being met: Under the law, parents have the right to request an IEP meeting to revise the plan whenever they feel it’s necessary.

Does Your Student Need an Education Plan?

There are certain criteria that determine whether a student needs an education plan under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. For a 504 plan, students are eligible if they have a disability or condition that interferes with their educational achievement but doesn’t qualify them for special education classes.

To receive an IEP plan, a student should have at least one special factor that is outlined by the IDEA: deafness; visual impairment; behavioral problems that interfere with the ability to learn; limited English proficiency; or assistive technology needs.

504 vs. IEP

Section 504 and IEP plans are both designed to meet the education needs of students. However, there are some differences between the two plans. We outline them below:

Section 504 Plan Individualized Education Plan
Part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 Part of the IDEA
Addresses accommodations for a student Addresses a special education curriculum and special services for a student
A plan is created with parents, general and special education teachers, and the school principal A plan is created with a team that includes parents, special and general education teachers, school district representatives and education specialists
May or may not be in writing Must be a written document
Parents must be informed about significant changes to the plan Notice must be given before any changes are proposed and parents have the right to object to them

Expert Q&A: Advice for Parents of Students with Disabilities

Parents who have children with disabilities have many questions on how to deal with education and ensure their students get the tools they need for a successful education experience. In this section, we asked the following experts in the field to provide:

  • Dr. Richard C. Horowitz, co-founder of Growing Great Relationships and author of “Family Centered Parenting: Your Guide for Growing Great Families”
  • Kathy Sarin of NW Assessment and Advocacy
  • Dr. Kara Ayers, assistant professor and the associate director of the University of Cincinnati Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities
  • Sivan Tuchman, research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington

What can parents do to be proactive in ensuring their child with disabilities is getting the protections at school they’re entitled to by law?

Horowitz

Different strategies depending on where they’re at in the process. When an issue first concerns parents, they should write a letter to the school principal requesting an evaluation of their child to determine eligibility. The school must respond with a meeting where they will engage in a Response to Intervention Plan (RTI), which outlines what steps the school will take to meet a child’s needs within a specific time frame that doesn’t include special education services. At this point, parents need to monitor the plan and make sure the school is not dragging its feet. If the RTI doesn’t remedy the issues, the district will then do an evaluation and report to the parents whether their findings indicate eligibility for classification as special education. If eligibility is agreed upon, an Individual Education Plan (IEP) is prepared, which lays out in detail goals, objectives and accommodations that will be put in place within written time frames.

Sarin

Reach out regularly to your child’s special education case manager. This person is your child’s main teacher and the coordinator of school services. Ideally, your relationship with this teacher will be positive and supportive. If not, never fear! All decisions about your child’s program must be made by an Individualized Education Plan team, which includes the parent, a special education teacher, a general education teacher, someone who can interpret testing data and any representative the parent chooses to invite. The school must ask you to sign permission before a team member can skip the meeting.

What are examples of the types of accommodations parents should expect for their children in educational environments?

Horowitz

That depends on the disability and what is negotiated at the IEP meeting. (Accommodations) can range on a continuum of options from an in-class support aide to an out-of-district placement in a private school. The standard is Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). In other words, try to keep the child with non-disabled peers as much as possible that still meets IEP goals. Common accommodations include modification of testing time frames, teacher modifications in prompts and note taking, assisted devices and pull out for intensive remedial skill building.

Sarin

Accommodations are not specifically listed in the law because they need to be individualized to each child’s needs. The list is practically limitless. Examples include ramps so students can have access to classrooms, Braille textbooks, teacher microphones that feed directly into hearing aids, books on tape, passes to leave class when upset and speech-to-text programs. While accommodation examples are limitless, school budgets are not, so while you may prefer that your child have a MacBook Pro, the school might provide a more affordable laptop to a child who needs one.

How can parents file a complaint if their child’s needs aren’t being adequately met at school? In what time frame can the parents expect to have the problem resolved?

Ayers

If your child’s needs aren’t being adequately met by the school, you may need to file a complaint. These complaints are called due process complaints and they serve as a request for a hearing. The school district has 10 calendar days to respond to your complaint. A meeting must be scheduled within 15 days from the time the complaint was submitted, and a decision on the complaint must be made within 45 days from the beginning of the timeline. While these time frames are explicitly stated, they can seem like a large portion of a child’s school year without resolution of a major problem. If you feel like your child’s needs remain unmet despite efforts to communicate with teachers and school staff, it may be best to file a complaint sooner rather than later.

If the parent’s complaint is not resolved in that timeframe, what further actions can they take?

Ayers

Parents can appeal hearing decisions. They can also file a complaint with their state’s Department of Education. Within the written complaint, cite which parts of the IDEA that you believe were violated in the district’s treatment of your child. You can also request corrective action to remedy these violations. Some examples of corrective actions include reimbursement for summer tutoring at a private learning center, reimbursement for transportation to another school or a request to reconvene the IEP team to update goals. Check with your state’s parent center or protection and advocacy organization for details and sample complaint letters.

What can parents do if their child with disabilities is being discriminated against at school?

Tuchman

Parents should always work with their school administrators and special educators first. While intentional discrimination does occur, sometimes school staff is unaware that certain behaviors may be discriminatory to students with disabilities. Open and honest conversations with school staff are a way to help a student flourish at a school in the long term and improve the school overall. If concerns about discrimination persist, however, contacting the district director of special education is a great next step. If district officials are also unresponsive, you can contact the school board or submit a due process hearing request to the district and state education agency.

Where can parents get support if a school is unresponsive to their child’s rights and needs?

Tuchman

Along with creating good lines of communication with a student’s school, parents can also utilize organizations outside of school to help support navigating their special education needs. The purpose of special education advocacy organizations is to support parents of students with disabilities, particularly through the IEP process. Many online groups have also sprung up so parents of students with disabilities can support one another as well.