Learn the Law

Understanding Your Rights to Advocate for Inclusion

Navigating the legal landscape is essential for individuals with disabilities and their advocates. Knowledge of critical laws ensures informed advocacy, promoting inclusivity, and safeguarding rights. 

Here, we break down significant laws that protect individuals with disabilities, empowering you to advocate effectively for yourself, your child, or your community.


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law that mandates schools meet the needs of children with disabilities and provides them a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment. IDEA was first passed in 1975 and was last updated in 2004.

IDEA has three main parts:

  • IDEA Part B (ages 3-21)
    • This part provides legal requirements and funding to ensure that all students with disabilities, including those with learning disabilities, get the support they need in school.
  • IDEA Part C (ages 0-2)
    • This part provides services and funding for infants and toddlers with disabilities from birth to age 2.
  • IDEA Part D (National Activities)
    • Finally, Part D provides funding for competitive grants to support state personnel development, technical assistance, information dissemination, technology, and information and support services for parents.

Why It Matters

Students with disabilities comprise approximately 2.45 million individuals
receiving services under IDEA
, accounting for about 34 percent of the total
approximately 7.2 million students. Additionally, IDEA allocates federal funding
to assist states in delivering Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

Deeper Dive

  • Eligibility and Identification
    • To qualify for services under IDEA, a child must fall into one of 13 specified disability categories, which includes having a Specific Learning Disability. Additionally, because of that disability, the child must need special education or related services to progress in school. If a child has a disability but doesn’t need special education, they might be covered by
      Section 504 or the Americans with Disabilities Act.
    • In IDEA, “Specific Learning Disability” (SLD) is a brain-based disorder that affects an individual’s ability to read, write, and do math (e.g., dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia).
    • IDEA regulations require states to develop policies and procedures that follow federal requirements for evaluating an SLD. Regardless of the method of identification chosen for an SLD, IDEA requires districts to implement a comprehensive evaluation.
  • Child Find and Early Intervention
    • According to the law, schools must find, identify, and assess all students to see if they need services under IDEA. This includes children who are experiencing homelessness, highly mobile (i.e., migrant children), or
      attending private schools.
    • States can also use up to 15 percent of their funding for “coordinated early intervening services.” These services are for children who haven’t been identified as needing special education but require extra academic or behavioral support in the general education setting.
  • Free Appropriate Public Education and the IEP
    • Eligible children can receive Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). This is put into action through an Individualized Education Program (IEP), created by a team of school staff and the child’s parents, commonly known as the IEP team.
    • The IEP should cover several areas:
      • The child’s academic, developmental, and functional needs
      • Yearly academic and functional goals for the child
      • How the child’s progress toward those goals will be measured
      • The special education and related services, as well as any program changes and support, will be given

IEPs include various services depending on the child’s needs, like psychological services, social work services, counseling, and parent counseling and training. 

  • Least Restrictive Environment and Placement
    • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is a foundational principle of the law, but it’s not a specific place. It means that students should be taught in the least restrictive setting while still meeting their needs. In that setting, students can get extra help, services, adjustments, and changes to make learning easier.
    • The IEP team, which includes a parent or caregiver, decides where the student should be placed. Options for placement can range from the general classroom with some support, small group or separate instruction, a special education class, to a specialized program like one in a residential or hospital setting. In 2020-21, 76% of U.S. students with specific learning disabilities with an IEP spent 80% or more of the school day in the general education setting.
  • Procedural Safeguards for Parents
    • IDEA ensures parents can speak up for their child’s education and overall well-being. These safeguards include:
      • Notice of rights – Parents should be told about their rights
      • Participation on the IEP team – Parents have the right to be part of the team that creates their child’s IEP
      • Access to educational records – Parents can see their child’s school records
      • Giving informed consent for an evaluation – Parents must agree before their child is evaluated for special education services, and they also have the right to an independent evaluation
      • Due process rights – Parents have certain rights if there are disagreements, and there are ways to resolve disputes
      • “Stay put” rights – If there’s a disagreement, the child’s current IEP and placement should not change during the resolution process

Every state must have at least one Parent Training and Information Center. The main goal of these centers is to give parents helpful and timely information about special education and their rights as parents, including support in resolving disputes.

  • Highly Qualified Teachers
    • Under IDEA, every special education teacher must have at least a bachelor’s degree and must be fully certified by the state as a special education teacher.
  • Transition Services and Exiting Special Education
    • In some states, transition planning is required under IDEA for students starting at age 16 (or age 14). Each transition-aged student should be invited to IEP and transition meetings, where the team determines measurable goals for after high school and plans transition activities.
    • When a student graduates from high school or “ages out” at age 21, the school has to provide a Summary of Performance (SOP). This document summarizes the student’s academic and functional achievements, lists any essential changes to help them, and gives suggestions for reaching their goals after school.

Additional Resources


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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990 and was updated in 2008. It protects people with disabilities from discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations, and services from private businesses like transportation and telecommunications. It is often regarded as the most sweeping civil rights statute enacted since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, the law does not provide funding for services or accommodations.

In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act (ADAA)
made significant changes to the ADA’s definition of “disability,” broadening the scope of coverage under both the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Why It Matters

The ADA defines an individual with a disability as a person who:

  • has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one’s
  • major life activities;
  • has a record of such an impairment;
  • is regarded as having such an impairment.

Under the law, learning, reading, thinking, and concentrating are all considered major life activities. The 2008 amendments to the ADA require a broader interpretation of disability by schools, testing agencies, and employers than the original law.

Section 504 vs. the ADA
The ADA was modeled after Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. While Section 504 only applies to programs getting federal money or run by federal agencies, the ADA covers state and local governments and many private organizations like employers and private K-12 schools. So, the ADA gives wider protection to people with disabilities, including those with learning disabilities.

Deeper Dive

Major provisions of the ADA include:

  • Employment and Reasonable Accommodations
    • Both private and public employers with more than 15 employees are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities during hiring, firing, pay, training, and other work-related conditions. A person is considered “qualified” when they can do the primary tasks of a job, with or without reasonable accommodations. If an employee requests reasonable accommodations for a disability, the employer must provide them. Reasonable accommodations might include modifying equipment or devices or changing a work environment. They do not include removing essential job functions, creating new jobs, or providing items for personal needs.
  • Public Entities
    • Public entities also have to offer services in settings that integrate people with disabilities as much as possible, avoiding institutionalization or segregation. In a 1999 case called Olmstead v. L.C., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation of people with disabilities without a good reason violates the ADA.
  • Public Life
    • The ADA bars discrimination against individuals with disabilities in public accommodations or most aspects of public life. The Act lists 12 types of public accommodations: hotels, motels, and other places of lodging; bars and restaurants; sales and retail establishments; movie theaters, concert halls, and other entertainment venues; and nursery, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate public and private schools and other places of education.

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Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or conducted by a Federal agency. 

Why It Matters

The Section 504 regulations require recipients of Federal funds—including state and local educational agencies—to provide students with disabilities a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Section 504 ensures that students who have disabilities but do not qualify for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) receive the educational supports and services they need. Schools typically do this by providing students with a 504 Plan.

Deeper Dive

Section 504 and its regulations cover all preschool, elementary, secondary, postsecondary, and adult education programs receiving federal financial assistance. 

Under the regulations:

  • Defining Disability
    • An individual with a disability is defined as a person who: 

1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities

2) has a record of such an impairment; 

3) is regarded as having such an impairment. 

This is a much broader definition than the definition in IDEA. Learning, reading, thinking, and concentrating are all considered major life activities. 

  • Evaluations for 504 Plan Eligibility
    • If a school receives federal funds (which includes all public schools), they must assess anyone with a disability or suspected disability. They also need to reevaluate periodically to ensure the student is still receiving appropriate support. The assessment must use reliable procedures to avoid mistakenly identifying children as having a disability.
    • The school typically develops a “504 Plan” that outlines the services, support, and adjustments the student will get, but the 504 plan generally requires less overall involvement than an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  • Procedural Safeguards – Parents and guardians have certain rights, such as viewing records, giving them a chance to have a fair hearing, and having a process for reviewing decisions.
  • Non-Academic Services and Activities – A school or organization that gets federal funds must also ensure equal access outside of academics. This includes things like counseling, sports, transportation, health services, after-school activities, and clubs.

Additional Resources

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The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 is the primary education law in the United States for students from kindergarten through 12th grade. It was updated in 2015 and is now called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), replacing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that was in effect from 2002 to 2015. This law allocates federal funds to states and school districts through specific programs outlined in the legislation.

The main goal of ESSA is to ensure that public schools provide a good education and are accountable for student learning and success. ESSA also includes initiatives to improve the quality of teachers and school leaders, promote evidence-based educational methods, offer more educational options, and address the needs of specific student groups, like those in poverty and English learners.

Why It Matters

ESEA, primarily Title I, has essential rules to make sure that students with disabilities, including those with learning disabilities, are part of the plans to make education better.

ESSA lets states make their own plans for accountability. Even though test scores are still important, they’re not the only way to judge how well a school is doing. States can choose other measures, like student involvement or college and career readiness. States have to share this information in a clear way, and each state has a public “Report Card” with this information.

Deeper Dive

Some essential parts of ESSA about the education of students with learning disabilities include the following:

  • Academic Standards
    • To get funds from Title I, each state has to set rigorous standards for what students should learn in math, reading or language arts, and science. These goals must be the same for all students, except those with the most significant cognitive disabilities who might have alternative standards aligned to an alternate diploma. In simplest terms, states cannot set lower standards just for students with disabilities.
  • Statewide Summative Assessments
    • A state has to give all students, except a very small group with significant cognitive disabilities—usually no more than 1 percent of all students in the state who take an alternate assessment—the same standards-aligned assessments in math and reading/language arts from grades 3 to 8, and at least once in high school. Students also must take science assessments at three grade levels. The student’s IEP team makes the decision to exempt students from these tests.

The testing systems used must be able to show the results for different groups of students, including those with disabilities.

  • Accountability Systems
    • A state has to set goals every three years in its “ESSA plan” to improve student learning and increase the high school graduation rate. These goals must consider the improvements needed to close the gaps in achievement and graduation rates among different groups of students. The state also needs to have “interim measures of progress” to show how it’s moving towards these long-term goals.
    • The state is responsible for creating and using a system to make sure schools are making progress. This includes looking at how well students do on state tests, their academic growth (especially in elementary and middle schools), high school graduation rates, English learners’ ability to become proficient in English, and other school quality and student success measures. This applies to all students and specific subgroups, including students with disabilities.
  • School Improvement
    • If the state’s system identifies a school as having certain groups of students (like those with disabilities) who are not doing as well as they should, the school has to create a plan to help those students do better. This plan must include using strategies that are proven to work.
    • If the school follows this plan but doesn’t see improvement over time according to the state’s standards, it has to take extra steps decided by the state to make sure those specific groups of students start doing better.
  • Data and Reporting
    • The law says each state must create and share a report card yearly, as do the local education agencies (LEAs)—typically school districts and individual schools. These report cards must include:

1. State Goals and Progress Measures

      • The state’s long-term goals and their progress are assessed for all students and specific groups, including those with disabilities, those with various racial and ethnic backgrounds, English learners, and other similar groups

2. Student Achievement Information

      • How well students are doing on the state tests, with details for each group

3. Other Academic Measures for Elementary and Middle Schools

      • Details about how students do beyond test scores, including specific information for each group, such as student attendance

4. High School Graduation Rate

      • How many students graduate from high school, with details for each group

5. School Quality and Student Success Indicators

      • Details about how schools perform in areas that indicate school quality or student success, including specific information for each group
  • Title I Schoolwide Programs: Leveling the Playing Field
    • If a school has many students from low-income families, they can use Title I funds to enhance the entire school. The plan aims to improve the performance of all students, with particular attention to various groups, including those with disabilities. Some Title I schools, however, concentrate on specific students at a higher risk of not meeting state standards. The law also emphasizes the importance of parent and family involvement.
  • High-Quality Teachers
    • The second largest program, Title II, gives support to states and school districts for activities to improve teaching and school leadership. The law even states that LEAs can use the funds to create programs and activities that help teachers more effectively serve children with disabilities.
  • 21st Century Schools
    • ESSA Title IV gives money for two main grant programs and other initiatives to meet various student needs and update schools. These include:
      • Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (Title IV, Part A)
        • Funding for providing a well-rounded education, making schools safer, and improving technology and digital skills
      • 21st Century Community Learning Centers
        • Funding for community centers and after-school programs
      • Federal Charter School Program
        • Funding to support the creation and improvement of charter schools
      • Magnet School Assistance
        • Funding for magnet schools
      • Statewide Family Engagement Centers
        • Funding for centers that involve families in education at a statewide level
      • Other Discretionary Grant Programs, Including Research Grants
        • Additional grant programs, including those for research purposes

Additional Resources

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The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) allows the government to fund programs in states and local communities. These programs aim to prevent young people from getting in trouble with the law and improve how the justice system interacts with youth. The most extensive JJDPA program gives states grants for certain activities related to four main requirements: 

  • keeping young people who break minor laws out of detention centers, 
  • making sure youth facilities are safe and separate from adult facilities,
  • not putting young people in adult jails or lockups, 
  • and addressing any unfair treatment based on race or ethnicity. The law also allows for other activities like providing help, training, demonstrations, research, and programs for runaway and homeless youth, as well as missing children.

Why It Matters

The law helps improve treatment for people with disabilities, including learning disabilities, who are involved with the juvenile justice system. It provides important legal protections for these individuals.

Deeper Dive

The U.S. Department of Justice provides formula grants (meaning non-competitive funds) to states. These funds are meant to help states plan, start, run, coordinate, and assess projects that make education, training, research, prevention, diversion, treatment, and rehabilitation programs more effective in dealing with juvenile delinquency and improving the juvenile justice system.

These funds can be used for various activities, such as creating community—and home-based alternatives to putting young people in jail or institutions, offering services to juvenile offenders who are at risk of child abuse and neglect, providing education and support for young people at risk or already involved in delinquency, and ensuring that young people have proper legal representation.

In order to receive funding, states must follow these requirements: 

1. Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders

  • A “status offender” is a young person facing charges or judged for behavior that wouldn’t be considered a crime if an adult did it. These include truancy, curfew violations, running away from home, alcohol use, and “general ungovernability.” The law says that, with a few exceptions, these young people shouldn’t be placed in secure detention facilities or correctional facilities.

2. Site and Sound Separation

  • The law tells states to make sure that young people accused or judged for delinquent acts, those charged with status offenses, and those not involved in any offense are not kept in places where they might come into contact with adult inmates—those over 18.

3. Adult Jail and Lockup Removal

  • In most cases, states cannot put young people in adult jails or lockup facilities.

4. Racial and Ethnic Disparities

  • States must work on strategies to find and reduce any differences in how the juvenile justice system treats young people of different races and ethnicities.

Several parts of JJDPA specifically deal with matters related to people with disabilities, including the following:

  • The U.S. Department of Justice is required to share a yearly report with Congress about young people taken into custody. This report should include details about their education, like learning disabilities, poor academic performance, repeating grades, and leaving school early.
  • States can use the funds they receive for projects related to juvenile delinquency and learning disabilities. This includes creating on-the-job training programs to help community services, law enforcement, and people in juvenile justice better understand and support young individuals with learning disabilities.
  • Additionally, the funds can be used for programs specifically focusing on the needs of girls in or at risk of getting into the juvenile justice system. This includes pregnant girls, young mothers, survivors of sexual exploitation or trafficking, girls with disabilities, and girls from diverse backgrounds, including those who are members of an Indian tribe.

Additional Resources

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The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) is a significant federal law for workforce development because it funds support programs at the local, state, and national levels to help people get ready for work and enhance their chances in the job market. It was first passed in 1998 and was updated in 2014.  

These programs offer a mix of education and training services, including job search support, career advice, skill training, classroom learning, and on-the-job training. The goal is to boost employment and earnings for workers. Additionally, WIOA renews the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which focuses on assisting individuals with disabilities in seeking employment.

Why it Matters

WIOA focuses on helping people who face challenges in finding a job, especially those with disabilities. 

The State Vocational Rehabilitation program is essential to the state workforce development system for individuals with disabilities. It strongly emphasizes getting individuals ready for jobs where they earn competitive wages, above minimum wage, in workplaces that are not separate from others. Even though some employers and programs can get certificates to pay employees with disabilities less than the minimum wage under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, WIOA has rules to limit this practice. The goal is to help individuals with disabilities secure jobs where they earn regular wages and are integrated into the workforce.

Deeper Dive

Workforce Development Activities

WIOA Title I, managed by the U.S. Department of Labor, funds three grant programs for states—for adults, those who lost jobs, and youth—along with various national programs such as research and technical assistance and the Job Corps, a residential career training program.

The goal of workforce development activities is to train workers for jobs that are in local demand. These activities are meant to be well-coordinated, follow the same performance measures, and be controlled locally. The WIOA system is organized around about 3,000 local One-Stop centers run by local Workforce Development Boards—a total of 593 in the U.S. These centers bring together and provide employment and training services. People who qualify can access services through these One-Stop centers, offering universal access for everyone, regardless of age or employment status. However, priority is given to those with low income and those facing barriers to employment, including individuals with disabilities.

There are parts of WIOA Title I to help individuals with disabilities, including:

  • Each state has to come up with plans to improve job opportunities for people with low income and those who face challenges in finding work, including individuals with disabilities.
  • Every local workforce board must have a group that gives information and help specifically for individuals with disabilities.
  • The local workforce development board is responsible for leading efforts to find ways to make sure that people with disabilities can easily access both physical places and programs.
  • Local boards must check yearly to see if their programs are accessible for people with disabilities.
  • Young people with disabilities who are not in school can participate in activities like GED preparation or job training under the Title I Youth program, and it doesn’t depend on how much money their family makes or other characteristics.
  • Through the One-Stop centers, local programs can make different job-related programs work together better and offer support to help people with challenges in finding jobs, including those with disabilities, go through different services and activities more efficiently.

Adult Education and Family Literacy

The adult education and family literacy programs funded by WIOA Title II, overseen by the U.S. Department of Education, offer various services for individuals with disabilities. These include fundamental instruction in reading and math for those who haven’t reached a basic level, preparing for the GED exam, and teaching English to non-English speakers.

  • State and local providers can also use federal funds for things like creating better tools to assess the progress of individuals with disabilities, including assessments for learning disabilities.
  • When choosing local providers to offer these services, states must consider how well a provider can help individuals with disabilities.
  • On a national level, the U.S. Department of Education can develop, replicate, and share the best ways of working with adults who have disabilities.

Vocational Rehabilitation 

Every state has at least one Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agency. In 34 states, there is only one VR agency, while 22 states have two (one specifically helps individuals who are blind or have visual impairments). These agencies offer services to people with disabilities to assist them in getting ready for, finding, keeping, or regaining employment.

To qualify for VR services, a person must have a physical or mental condition that significantly hinders their ability to work. They should be able to benefit from VR services regarding employment and need these services to prepare for, start, continue, or hold onto a job. If the agency cannot help everyone who qualifies, it gives priority to those with the most severe disabilities.

People often get referred to VR agencies by schools, hospitals, or welfare agencies, but those who are eligible can also apply directly. Some VR agencies operate on “order of selection” and may be on a waiting list to receive services.

Services provided by these agencies can include diagnosing or evaluating a disability, creating a personalized rehabilitation plan, training, helping with job placement, and offering other support services to help individuals get and keep a job.

Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS)

When WIOA was last updated in 2014, the law stated that VR agencies must set aside at least 15% of their federal funds for services that prepare students with disabilities for employment and postsecondary education before graduation, also called pre-employment transition services. If a student is recognized as having a disability under IDEA or Section 504, they are considered potentially eligible for Pre-ETS.

These services are meant to be short-term, and VR agencies have to work with local schools to ensure they supplement, not duplicate, the transition services already provided under IDEA.

There are five required activities for these Pre-Employment Transition Services and other approved activities to help students transition to college or work after they finish school.

  1. Job Exploration Counseling
  2. Work-Based Learning 
  3. Counseling on Postsecondary Education Opportunities
  4. Workplace Readiness Training
  5. Instruction in Self-Advocacy

Additional Resources

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