The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) requires that a free and appropriate public education is available to eligible children and youth with disabilities.

Early intervention services apply to children through age 2 and their families. Special education and related services apply to children and youth ages 3 through 21. More than 6.5 million individuals are eligible for services under the law.

IDEA has been around in some form since 1975. Originally known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, signed into law by President Gerald Ford, IDEA has been reauthorized by Congress in 2004 and amended in 2015 through the Every Student Succeeds Act.

IDEA statute

The IDEA statute is broken into four parts.

General Provisions

This section outlines the general purpose and definitions of IDEA. It includes this statement from Congress:

Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.

A key definition in this section is the term “child with a disability,” defined in IDEA to mean a child:

  1. with intellectual disabilities, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance (referred to in this chapter as "emotional disturbance"), orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities; and
  2. who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.

Assistance for Education of All Children with Disabilities

This section includes information about formula grants to help states provide a free appropriate public education to qualified individuals ages 3 through 21.

Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities

This section includes information about formula grants to help states provide early intervention services for children from birth through age 2 and their families.

It includes this statement from Congress, finding that there is an “urgent and substantial need”:

  1. to enhance the development of infants and toddlers with disabilities, to minimize their potential for developmental delay, and to recognize the significant brain development that occurs during a child's first 3 years of life;
  2. to reduce the educational costs to our society, including our Nation's schools, by minimizing the need for special education and related services after infants and toddlers with disabilities reach school age;
  3. to maximize the potential for individuals with disabilities to live independently in society;
  4. to enhance the capacity of families to meet the special needs of their infants and toddlers with disabilities; and
  5. to enhance the capacity of State and local agencies and service providers to identify, evaluate, and meet the needs of all children, particularly minority, low-income, inner city, and rural children, and infants and toddlers in foster care.

National Activities to Improve Education of Children with Disabilities

This section includes information about discretionary state personnel development grants; personnel preparation, technical assistance, model demonstration projects, and dissemination of information; and training, information, and related support to help children with disabilities and their parents improve their results.

IDEA regulations

Regulations for meeting IDEA requirements are put in place by the U.S. Department of Education.

More IDEA and education resources