IDEA: What Parents of Children With Blindness or Low Vision Need to Know About the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a “law ensuring special education services to children birth through 21,” as the US Department of Education states. It was established in the mid-1970s and entitled school-age children with disabilities to “a free and appropriate public education (FAPE)” in the “least restrictive environment (LRE)”; this portion of IDEA is now categorized as IDEA Part B. IDEA expanded in the mid-1980s to include Part C, offering federal grants to states for the provision of special education services to children birth to the third birthday.

The current version of the special education law, including Parts B and C, is referred to as IDEA 2004, shorthand for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act which was reauthorized and revised in 2004.

IDEA Part C: Early Intervention

If your child is under three years of age, services are described in Part C of the law and are referred to as early intervention services. Early intervention services are voluntary for parents of eligible children; individual states determine eligibility for early intervention services. Services are provided in the “natural environment,” meaning the environment in which your child would be (home, daycare) if they did not have a disability.

The document that serves as a blueprint for your child’s early intervention services is the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). The IFSP will be developed based on evaluation results and discussion among team members. A cornerstone of the law is that the team comes together and develops the IFSP as a team of which you are an equal member.

IDEA 2004 protects your role as a parent to fully participate in the decision-making that goes into educational planning for your child. You know your child better than anyone else and can be a powerful resource, as well as an advocate, for her development and education.

IDEA Part B: School-Age Services

When a child reaches age three, they are eligible to receive services under Part B of IDEA 2004. Services are typically delivered in a school setting, though if a child is medically fragile, services may be in the home, hospital, or long-term care facility. The document that serves as a blueprint for a child’s school-age services is the Individualized Education Program (IEP).

IDEA 2004 Part B has six basic principles parents should be aware of. Each is briefly described below.

  1. Free and Appropriate Public Education: Your child is entitled to a free education that is appropriate to her special education needs as a student who is blind or low vision. This education is to be provided in a public school setting.
  2. Least Restrictive Environment: IDEA 2004 requires that children with disabilities be educated with children who are not disabled to the greatest extent possible. Today, most children who are blind or low vision go to their neighborhood schools. However, there is a range of possible educational placements for students who are blind or have low vision, including a regular classroom, a special classroom in a regular school, or a special school. The decision about which educational placement is most appropriate for your child will come when the team develops the IEP and determines which placement will provide the greatest opportunity to achieve the goals on the IEP.
  3. Comprehensive Evaluation: Evaluation is the process used to determine whether a child has a disability and needs special education and related services. Although your child’s eye condition may seem obvious, an evaluation to formally document your child’s disability is required to start the special education process.

Your child is entitled to a comprehensive evaluation of strengths and needs at least once every three years at no cost to you. This is referred to as a “full and individual evaluation” (sometimes abbreviated as FIE) and should include the following types of assessments:

  1. Individualized Education Program: If your child is between three and 22, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) will be developed. The IEP will be developed based on evaluation results and discussion among team members. A cornerstone of the law is that the team come together and develop the IEP as a team of which you are an equal member.
  2. Parents’ and Students’ Input into Educational Decisions: IDEA 2004 protects your role as a parent to fully participate in the decision-making that goes into educational planning for your child. This planning is formalized through the IEP process. You know your child better than anyone else and can be a powerful resource and an advocate for development and education. Students also need to learn to advocate for themselves, and IDEA 2004 promotes this idea by stating that they are members of the educational team, when appropriate. When a child with blindness or low vision is in late elementary school, they should participate in the IEP meeting as appropriate.
  3. Procedural Safeguards: The term “procedural safeguards” refers to the processes both your local school district and your state’s educational agency set up to make sure that you can enforce your child’s right to a free and appropriate public education. Many of these measures are designed to keep you informed about any decisions that affect your child’s education and to make sure that you and your child (as well as the school and professionals) are treated equally and fairly. Your school district is required to provide you written information in your native language about these procedural safeguards.

In addition to the six basic principles, IDEA also mandates planning and other services that enable teenagers to make the transition to life after high school—whether that includes a job, college, or other plans—and to get access to whatever services they will continue to need.

We’ve only provided a basic overview of IDEA 2004 here on FamilyConnect. For in-depth information about the provisions of IDEA 2004 and the full wording of the law and its regulations, see IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; Wrightslaw is another helpful website. Although legal terminology can sometimes be intimidating, becoming familiar with the key provisions of the law lets you know what to ask for to make sure that your child receives all services your child is entitled to.

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