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Three Important Laws that Support Individuals with Disabilities

Together these laws provide equal access and protections for individuals with disabilities, and it is essential for educators and families to understand the basic tenets of these laws.
Published: April 6, 2023

There are three laws related to the education of individuals with disabilities that you need to be familiar with:  

  1. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)  

  1. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) 

  1. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) 

Together these laws provide equal access and protections for individuals with disabilities. It is essential to understand the basic tenets of these laws to know how each provides protections against barriers to access, supports and services, and mitigates discriminatory actions against those with disabilities. 

  1. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Known widely as the special education law, the IDEA has two basic components, one for children from birth to 3 years of age and one for students from 3 years until high school graduation (or the age of 21—whichever comes first). Schools are responsible for locating, identifying, and evaluating all children who may need special education services. For children under the age of 3 years with disabilities or developmental delays, the IDEA requires early intervention services, if needed, to enhance their development and minimize the need for special education services once they reach school age. For school-aged children, the IDEA ensures that children with disabilities who are found eligible for special education services are provided a free and appropriate public education utilizing an individualized education program (IEP) that is developed based on the special education evaluation and the unique strengths and needs of the student. An important tenet of the IDEA is that students with disabilities are educated in the least restrictive environment alongside their non-disabled peers to the greatest extent appropriate.  

  2. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability status. The ADA applies to any entity offering goods and services to the public, including public elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools. The ADA defines an individual with a disability as a person who has “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”; major life activities include walking, eating, and sleeping as well as activities in which the manifestation of the disability may be non-apparent, such as learning, concentrating, and thinking, among other activities. The ADA also requires reasonable accommodations to provide access for persons with either physical or cognitive disabilities. The ADA is largely responsible for the accommodations that we see in public spaces, including curb cuts, self-opening doors, and ramps. 

  3. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504). Section 504 is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination in public schools, institutions of higher education, and other state and local education agencies that receive federal funding. Section 504 requires schools to provide accommodations and modifications for students and educators with disabilities to ensure equitable access. Students who do not qualify for special education services may qualify for accommodations and modifications under Section 504 that may be implemented under a 504 plan. For example, a student with a hearing issue may need preferential seating and speech-to-text accommodations to access the curriculum. 

For more information 

“Protecting Students with Disabilities.” (2020). U.S. Department of Education 

“Guide to disability rights laws.” (2022). U.S. Department of Justice. 

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.