Special Education

Special education is instruction individually designed to meet the unique needs of children with disabilities. It provides them with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) as guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Included in special education are the services and supports that are needed by students whose educational needs cannot be met by simple modification of the regular instructional program. Education for children with disabilities includes independent living skills in addition to academics. Parents are full members of the IEP team and no planning or provision of special education services can be provided without the participation (if desired) or consent of the parent.

Special Education refers to specifically designed instruction to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability. Services may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Audiological services
  • Orientation and mobility services
  • Instruction in the home or hospital
  • Adapted physical education
  • Vision services
  • Specialized driver training instruction
  • Counseling and guidance
  • Psychological services other than assessment and development of the individual education program (IEP)
  • Parent counseling and training
  • Health and nursing services
  • Social worker services
  • Specifically designed vocational education and career development
  • Recreation services
  • Specialized services for low incidence disabilities, such as readers, transcribers, and vision and hearing services
  • Speech and language services
  • Medical evaluation for diagnostic purposes

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act

Before there was a special education law, children and youth with special needs were not provided an appropriate education. If they were allowed to attend school, the education they received was not necessarily appropriate to their needs. Because of this inequity, Congress passed a law, which is now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, otherwise known as IDEA. IDEA mandates special education services for children with certain disabilities, who because of this disability need special education and related services. IDEA 2004 defines a child with a disability as a child who requires special education and related services due to one of the following conditions:

  • Mental retardation
  • Hearing impairment (including deafness)
  • Speech or language impairments
  • Visual impairments (including blindness)
  • Serious emotional disturbance
  • Orthopedic impairments
  • Autism
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Other health impairments
  • Specific learning disabilities

IDEA is built on six principles:

  • Free and Appropriate Public (FAPE): Every child shall have a free and appropriate public education.
  • Assessment: All children will be appropriately assessed for purposes of eligibility determination, educational programming and individual performance monitoring.
  • Individualized Education Program (IEP): Each child who is found eligible will have an Individualized Education Program designed to meet his/her unique needs.
  • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): Each child will be educated in the least restrictive environment.
  • Parent Participation: Parents have the right and the responsibility to participate in the education of their child.
  • Procedural Safeguards: Procedural safeguards will ensure the rights of children with disabilities and their parents will be protected, that students with disabilities and their parents will be provided the information they need to make decisions about the provision of FAPE and that procedures and mechanisms will be in place to resolve disagreements between parties. These procedures include adherence to timeline and resolution sessions.

The Individual Educational Program (IEP)

The IEP refers to both the legal planning process and the document outlining the services that an eligible student with disabilities receives. As a process, the IEP provides the opportunity for school, student and family, and agency representatives to jointly determine and plan for needed student services on an individual basis. As a legal document, it ensures there is a written record of the determinations made (or not made) and provides a management tool for monitoring and compliance purposes.

Core Concepts
The IEP core concepts include:

  1. 1. The involvement and progress of each child with a disability in the general curriculum, including addressing the unique needs that arise out of the child’s disability;
  2. 2. The involvement of parents and students, together with regular and special education personnel, in making individual decisions to support each student’s educational success;
  3. 3. And the preparation of students with disabilities for employment and other post-school outcomes.

The following participants are members of the IEP team:

  • Parent/family member
  • Special education teacher
  • General education teacher
  • Principal or site manager
  • School district representative

The student or family may invite whomever they want to participate in the IEP meeting. The school district must inform the family, in writing, of who will be attending the IEP meeting. Please click on the link below for a more detailed description of the 5 steps involved in the IEP process document (pdf).


Documents on this page are available in Adobe Acrobat PDF format to view Download Free PDF reader.

California Family to Family Information and Education Resources
This directory was created by Support for Families of Children with Disabilities (SFCD) and it is a comprehensive listing of all the Family Voices Offices (FV), Parent Training and Information Centers (PTI), Community Parent Resource Centers, Family Empowerment Centers (FEC), and Family Resource Center (FRC) Directory.
Support for Families Directory document (pdf)

American with Disabilities Act (ADA)
This website links to information about The Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects the rights of individuals with disabilities. It is the major civil rights law that protects citizens with disabilities. The link to their publications web page provides a lot of information about ADA and disability law.

Changes under IDEA 2004:
IEP team members can be excused from attendance if their curricular area is not being discussed. If their curricular area is modified, an IEP member can be excused if they have submitted input to the team in writing in advance of the IEP meeting. Parental written consent is required before an IEP team member can be excused. Alternate means of meeting participation (e.g., conference calls), are if allowed the parent and school agree. This agreement must be in writing, too.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
California Department of Education (CDE)--Special Education Division--Special Education Laws and Regulations. (IDEA)
This site provides information about how IDEA 2004 affects California Education law.

IDEA 2004 -- The Law
This is the US Department of Education-Office of Special Education & Rehabilitation Services (OSERS) webpage.

IDEA Partnership
IDEA Partnership has posted helpful summaries created by OSEP, that feature the statutory changes implemented by IDEA 2004.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

This new legislation will have an impact on children with disabilities. Try these sites to get an idea of some of the issues. The first is from the US Department of Education; the second from the California Department of Education (CDE); the third is a side-by-side comparison of NCLB and its implications for special education produced by the Council of Exceptional Children and the last is a list of resources for families interested in NCLB from Reed Martin, a special education attorney and advocate.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Policy Documents Affecting the Education of Infants, Toddlers, Children and Youth with Disabilities

CDE Local Education Agency Plan

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001: Implications for Special Education Policy and Practice
NCLB Side-by-side document (pdf)

Reed Martin's No Child Left Behind Resources

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act guarantees students equal access to services (such are education) from agencies that receive any federal funding. Each school district has at least one person who is designated as the 504 coordinator, who is responsible for ensuring that the student needs are identified and that appropriate accommodations are instituted. If services are indicated, a 504 plan is developed. This process is less structured than the IEP (Individualized Education Program) process, and unlike IDEA, no funding is attached to services listed in the plan. This means funding for any accommodations comes from the general school budget. However, if a school or agency is found to be out of compliance with Section 504, they could lose their federal funding.

The Rehabilitation Act
The text of the Rehabilitation Act is available on this site, sponsored by the US Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, Rehabilitation Services Administration.

An Overview of ADA, IDEA and Section 504. Update 2001.
This Eric digest provides a side-by-side comparison chart of these three laws. Eric is a clearinghouse on information about education for children with special health care needs/disabilities.

You may also use this comparison chart taken from the Colorado Department of Education website highlighting the key differences between Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
504 vs IDEA-Comparison chart document (pdf)

The Hughes Bill

The Hughes Bill—California state legislation enacted in 1990 (AB 2586/Hughes)-- is meant to ensure that special education students have the right to positive behavioral intervention plans.

Questions and answers about the Hughes Bill, adapted from Chapter 8 of the Protection and Advocacy (PAI) and Community Alliance for Special Education (CASE) manual, Special Education Rights and Responsibilities, revised 1997.
Parent Handbook for Special Education document (pdf) (West Contra Costa Unified School District --see page 24)

Protection and Advocacy (PAI)
Information Letter on Behavior Intervention in School Settings document (pdf)
This Information Letter describes behavior intervention plans and practices in California schools and as such is an outcome of the Hughes Bill.

Bill AB 3632 -- The Interagency Responsibility for Related Services California Assembly Bill AB 3632 requires that local education agencies (LEA) arrange with other agencies to provide related services for special education students. These services can include education services to students in hospitals/developmental centers, occupational or physical therapy and mental health assessments and services.

United Advocates for Children of California (UACC)
UACC is a family organization working on behalf of children and youth with serious emotional disturbances and their families. They provide facts sheets about AB 3632 document (pdf). If mental health issues are of concern to you, it might be worth the time to start with their home page and browse the entire site.

Technical Assistance Alliance for Parent Centers
The Technical Assistance Alliance for Parent Centers is an innovative project that supports a unified technical assistance system for the purpose of developing, assisting and coordinating Parent Training and Information Projects and Community Parent Resource Centers under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This project is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs and consists of 1 national center and 6 regional centers. The project is funded to strengthen the connections to the larger technical assistance network and fortify partnerships between parent centers and state education systems at regional and national levels.