Good Idea, Mixed Results: A Primer on the Principles of IDEA

Hello, readers,

Well, it’s February third (February fourth on the other side of the International Date Line). So I assume none of us woke up to “I Got You Babe” and a reminder that it’s Groundhog Day, unless of course you’re watching the movie. That being said, Disability World can be full of deja vu. People with disabilities and their loved ones are often frustrated because they have to jump through the same hoops over and over to access what they should be entitled to simply because they are human beings. I have found, though, that knowledge is power. Once you understand how some of those hoops work, they can be easier to navigate. For example, last month we talked about advocacy–why it becomes an issue for PWDs and how self-advocacy helps it become less so.

Today, we’re going to talk about the hoops people with disabilities face in the educational system. You know the classics: teachers who won’t follow IEPs, “experts” who change an IEP or other plan without parental consent, and administrators who believe special education is a place, not a service. These are frustrating in the extreme–throughout my school career, they left my parents and I wishing we could slap sense into people. Fortunately, my mom knew her way around IDEA, so she was able to call teachers and administrators out when they tried to skirt federal law. Once I got old enough, I learned those ins and outs too, and now I’m here to share them with you.

What is IDEA?

IDEA stands for Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, a federal law first enacted in 1975 and revised in 1994 and 2004, to ensure children and teens with disabilities received proper educations and opportunities within their communities. I usually pronounce it like the word “idea,” although technically you’re supposed to say I-D-E-A. Was it a good “idea?” Yes, in theory. Back in 1994, we did have more disability rights on the books than existed in, say, 1958 or 1972. Children with disabilities weren’t automatically institutionalized as much, though it still happened. People were beginning to wake up to the fact that everyone needs some type of education and it should be as appropriate as possible.

Of course, IDEA has its problems. One of the biggest in my opinion is that, like the ADA, the law is too broad in certain areas. We’ll get to specifics in a minute, but for example, misusing IDEA could lead to a parent claiming his or her child has a disability where one does not classically exist (i.e., claiming rebellious behavior with no cause other than disrespect is Oppositional Defiance Disorder). You might also get parents and students who abuse the modifications they are given, making it harder for kids who need help to access it because, “Well, this was abused before so we don’t offer it anymore.” The law is also broad enough, and yet narrow enough, that certain populations such as gifted kids who also happen to have disabilities are grossly underserved.

That being said, IDEA can be a tremendous help to any parent or guardian who wants the best education for his or her child. It does a lot to protect those kids. Let’s look at the policies briefly:

1. Zero Reject. This policy states that a public school cannot refuse to educate any child on the grounds of disability. Teachers and administrators often run afoul when it comes to kids with severe disabilities–“What? Layla can’t function on a level higher than kindergarten, so why bother educating her?” EENH, wrong! Thanks for playing, anyway. Zero reject requires that even if Layla can only write her name and read to a certain extent, the school has an obligation to teach her that or they have failed. It also works the opposite way. Refusing to teach a gifted child with a disability on the grounds that his or her combination of needs is “too much” for the school is a flagrant violation. Until or unless the parents remove the child from your system, you will educate that child.

2. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). This is one of the simplest principles of IDEA, yet schools ignore it all the time. It states that a child must be educated in the same way as his peers without disabilities as much as possible. So if Seamus has autism and stims in class, yet can function inside a mainstream classroom outside of stimming, he should not be placed in a self-contained classroom all day. If Richard has dyscalculia, yet is an English whiz, he should participate in English with his peers while receiving the least restrictive help possible for math. This also works the other way; if a child needs a self-contained classroom or his or her parents prefer it, and the disability warrants it, the school cannot force the child into a mainstream room.

3. Parent Participation. Again, a simple policy that schools constantly violate, either because they don’t know what the law says or think they know better than the parents. This policy states a parent has the right to participate in all meetings, planning, or other activities concerning the education of his or her child. (This also applies to guardians, whoever they may be). They want to sit in on an IEP meeting and share concerns? Then, teachers and administrators, you listen. They ask you a question? You answer. You also do not, under any circumstances, modify an IEP or any other plan without parental consent. Finally, you do not deny participation in planning to a child who has reached majority (14-16 in most school systems).

5. Due Process Safeguards. This is a bit more complicated because it involves several scenarios that could come up because any of the above or any of the below were violated. This part of IDEA states parents, guardians, and their kids are protected under law and allowed to exercise freedom of speech in the educational system. For example, let’s say Abigail has a disability and her single dad doesn’t agree with something in her IEP. The teacher in charge of the IEP tells him he can’t question the IEP, and he walks away because he doesn’t know better. Wrong–turn around, Dad! (Or Mom, or Grandma, or Aunt Sue). You have every right to question, every right to protest–heck, go ahead and sue if you have to. I’m not saying this happens only to single parents. It happened to my traditional nuclear family. But some families may be more vulnerable, and some disabilities may be less apt to come under scrutiny. As in, if Jun-Ming functions at a ten-year-old level, why shouldn’t we just leave her in the high school special ed room? So, be on your guard and use your safeguards.

6. Free, Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). A lot of this goes back to LRE and what is best for the child or teen. IDEA also ensures that for example, the parents of a child with a disability can’t be charged for his or her education “because it takes more to educate him.” They also can’t be charged for education-related services (“Oh, if you want Charlotte to have a one-on-one aide, you have to pay for it.”) IDEA also entitles these children to a public education, meaning alongside peers without disabilities and educated in their same manner as much as possible. Under FAPE, it also states that “an IEP must be written and enacted to address the unique needs of the student.” In other words, if it’s written, is it done? If not, the school is in violation because, despite the pitfalls of IEPs, they are federally mandated and often necessary.

As a side note: private and charter schools have their own rules, but I strongly believe that no private or other school should deny education based on disability. If you are a parent of a child in a private school or other school setting and have faced discrimination or violation of any of these policies, fight!

7. Non-Discriminatory Assessment. This policy is exactly what it sounds like. For example, let’s say Marguerite only speaks French because she’s new to the country. She’s tested to see where she fits in academically, but all her tests are in English, which causes her to perform poorly. Marguerite is then placed in special education. Hit the buzzer with me now: WRONG! Marguerite must be tested in her native language. Non-discriminatory assessment also prevents scenarios like this:

  • Hakim’s IEP team writes IEP goals based on their own perceptions of his disability and what he can do, grossly underestimating his
    abilities (and possibly violating FAPE or LRE in the bargain).

  • Ilsa has hypertonic muscles that prevent her from writing. Yet, in a state assessment, she is required to write by hand for part of the test. The illegible results are then used against her.

  • Tamara is gifted, yet has a disability. The assessment she is given are only disability-focused, so that her teachers and the administrators feel justified in not giving her challenging educational opportunities.

    This is just a primer–IDEA for Dummies, if you will, though I know none of you are dummies. 🙂 For more information, you can go to:

    Several other sources are available–Google is your friend. Remember, it’s always a good “idea” to educate yourself, no matter what your child’s disability is or where he or she is in school.

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