This lesson provides general information about important topics to understand within the field of special education.



This section discusses important laws related to federal and state regulations for students with disabilities.

Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA)

IDEA “is a law that makes available a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children” (US DOE IDEA website). Schools are required to serve students as outlined in their Individualized Education Plan (IEP), as well as to ensure FAPE in the least restrictive environment (LRE). Children with disabilities in all 50 states and US territories are entitled to the rights of FAPE and LRE.

A key component of IDEA is that is promotes parent involvement and provides them with information and resources necessary to be “key decision makers” (National Center for Learning Disabilities). IDEA ensures that parents can attend meetings concerning their child, view their child’s school records and that they have a voice regarding decisions regarding their child’s placement.

For more information about IDEA, including its history and purpose, visit the following websites.

There are 13 categories under which children can qualify for IDEA:

  1. Specific Learning Disability (SLD) (most common category)
  2. Other Health Impairment (OHI)
  3. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  4. Emotional Disturbance (ED)
  5. Speech or Language Impairment
  6. Visual Impairment/Blindness
  7. Deafness
  8. Hearing Impairment
  9. Deaf-Blindness
  10. Orthopedic Impairment
  11. Intellectual Disability
  12. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
  13. Multiple Disabilities

For additional information on each of these categories, visit http://www.parentcenterhub.org/categories

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that was signed by President George H. W. Bush in 1990. It prohibits harassment and discrimination based on disability, similarly to how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, nationality, sex, and religion.  The ADA makes “discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public” illegal (The National Network, 2019).

Title II of the ADA states that schools may need to adjust policies (such as absence policies) to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities. Additionally, the ADA outlines minimum requirements for accessible design in facilities (such as schools) that serve people with disabilities. Examples of standards for accessible design can be found here: https://www.msjc.edu/DSPS/Documents/ADA%20Requirements%20for%20Classroom%20Seating.pdf

For more information about the ADA, including information regarding each of the five titles, visit the following website: https://adata.org/learn-about-ada


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, was the first disability civil rights act to be signed into law in the US (Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, 2019).  It was designed to help protect the rights of people with disabilities by prohibiting discrimination in programs that receive any federal funding from the U.S. DOE. Alongside ADA and IDEA, Section 504 protects all individuals with disabilities from both exclusion and unequal treatment in schools, jobs and the community. Its regulations also require school districts to provide FAPE to all students with disabilities within their jurisdiction. Additionally, under Section 504, FAPE requires that students both with and without disabilities be provided equally adequate aids and services necessary for their education needs.

In order for students to qualify for Section 504, the student will need accommodations to access their education, but may not be behind in school. For example, a child who is hearing impaired may need accommodations to sit in the classroom, and a child with ADHD may need accommodations for structure in the classroom. Students can qualify for Section 504 accommodations in K-12 schools, higher education, and after school programs.

For more information about Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, visit the following websites.


Felix Consent Decree

In 1993, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jennifer Felix, a Maui public school student who experienced developmental delays due to brain damage associated with seizures she had as an infant. The lawsuit argued that Felix was not provided with the necessary health and educational services for children with disabilities, as mandated by IDEA, the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This resulted in the state of Hawai‘i agreeing to what became known as the Felix Consent Decree, which increased the level of federal scrutiny of the Hawai‘i DOE and forced them to coordinate with agencies and service providers for students with disabilities. Since the Felix Consent Degree, the Hawai‘i DOE has taken significant steps to ensure that all students with disabilities have access to FAPE in a “least restrictive environment.”

For more information on the 1993 lawsuit (Felix vs. Waihee) and the 1994 Felix Consent Degree, read the following report by Phuong Wataoka: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED467138.pdf

Suggested peer-reviewed articles:

Lanear, J., & Frattura, E. (2007). Getting the stories straight: Allowing different voices to tell an ‘effective history’ of special education law in the United States. Education and the Law, 19(2), 87-109. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09539960701547750

IEP description & IEP team members/roles

This section provides a brief description of an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) is, who might serve on an IEP team, and the roles of the team members.

What is an IEP?

All children can learn and deserve access to an education that builds on their strengths, supports their needs, and fully includes them in the curriculum. One document that supports this mission is called an Individualized Educational Plan, or an IEP. An IEP is” a written statement about the educational program for a child with a disability” (Hawaii State Department of Education, 2019). It is a plan for how the special education program will meet a student’s needs to help them succeed in school. The process of creating an IEP typically starts with a full evaluation of a student, and the results are used to gather supports and services to meet a  student’s specific needs, such as the provision of certain accommodations and/or assistive technology. Any services or assistive technology to be provided to the student needs to be listed and described in the IEP and agreed on by the IEP team. Information in IEPs are protected by the (1974) Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The IEP is also a legal document, and children and parents are entitled to the services and supports that are agreed upon.

For further descriptions of what an IEP is as well as additional information on what creating an IEP entails, visit the following websites.

  1. Understood: https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/special-services/ieps/what-is-an-iep
  2. Hawaii State Department of Education: http://www.hawaiipublicschools.org/TeachingAndLearning/SpecializedPrograms/SpecialEducation/Pages/IEP.aspx
  3. United States Department of Education: https://www2.ed.gov/parents/needs/speced/iepguide/index.html


Who are the members of an IEP team and what are their roles? 

There are many service providers who may be part of an IEP team, and their expertise is critical in understanding what the needs of the student are and how those needs might best be met. By law (United States Department of Education, 2019), the following individuals are required on every student’s IEP team:

  1. The student (as appropriate)
  2. The student’s parents
  3. A person qualified to interpret evaluation results
  4. Special education teachers
  5. General education teacher
  6. A school system representative
  7. Transition Services Agency Representative (for children 14 years and older)
  8. Others with knowledge or special expertise about the child

It is important to note that a team member can serve in more than one role, given that they are qualified for both positions.

For further information on writing an IEP, IEP team members, implementing the IEP and a sample IEP form, visit

  1. US DOE website: https://www2.ed.gov/parents/needs/speced/iepguide/index.html
  2. Reading Rockets: https://www.readingrockets.org/article/iep-team-members


How does an IEP team work together? 

A student’s IEP team meets at least once a year to discuss how the student is progressing and meeting his/her/their goals and to make any adjustments in the IEP as needed. However, anyone on the IEP team can call a meeting at any time. Generally, IEP meetings discuss three main topics (Understood, 2019):

  1. Present Level of Performance (PLOP)- examines the student’s strengths and challenges (academically, socially and physically) based on a variety of data.
  2. Annual Goals – the team examines how the student has met his/her/their IEP goals during the past year and may create revised or new goals for the following year.
  3. Individualized Supports and Services – the team discusses how the accocomdations (changes how the child learns), modifications (changes what a child is expected to do in school) and special education instruction are working to help the student meet his/her/their goals. These may be change based on the student’s PLOP.

The meeting will often conclude with reviewing what was discussed before the special education teacher creates a draft of the new IEP.

For further detailed on information what an IEP meeting entails, visit:

  1. Understood.org: https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/special-services/ieps/the-iep-meeting-an-overview
  2. Special Education Guide: https://www.specialeducationguide.com/pre-k-12/individualized-education-programs-iep/the-iep-process-explained/
  3.  US Department of Education: https://www2.ed.gov/parents/needs/speced/iepguide/index.html


Helping parents prepare for an IEP Meeting

Some parents may feel anxious or worried before their child’s IEP meeting. School administrators and teachers might be intimidating to parents, especially as those in such professions are often seen by parents as experts in the field. Additionally, some parents may not realize the critical role they have on their child’s IEP team and the importance of their involvement in the decisions that are made regarding their child’s IEP goals. In order to assist parents in preparing for their child’s IEP meeting and understanding the importance of their role, consider the following strategies.

  1. Provide parents with information about special education laws and policies. Your school may have a booklet/pamphlet for parents, as school districts are required to provide parents with this information. If such resources are not available at your school, parents may find the Center for Parent Information and Resources website useful for understanding IDEA and the importance of their participation: https://www.parentcenterhub.org/qa2/
  2. Parents may find this resource from Wrightslaw (2019) useful, as it discusses strategies for parents to best advocate for their child, as well as a pre-IEP meeting worksheet to help them prepare what they would like to talk about: https://www.wrightslaw.com/bks/aaiep/ch1.pdf
  3. Connect parents together – Introduce parents with children in special education in your school with one another. This could be done through a low-key event such as a coffee hour or small potluck. When parents build relationships with each other, they can support one another as they navigate the special education system. Parents whose children have been in special education longer could meet new parents and mentor them as they learn how to effectively advocate for their children, understand more about special education policies and laws and how to prepare for IEP meetings. Such an event could also include bringing in a local expert, such as a school psychologist or district program specialist,  who would be available to talk with parents about any questions or concerns they may have.
  4. Hawaii resources that can help parents and families include:

Person first language

As the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities (TCDD) (2019) stated, “People with disabilities are – first and foremost – people.” Undoubtedly, we can think of examples in movies, TV shows, and books where people with disabilities were portrayed as helpless or as having overcome a tragedy and needing to rely on caregivers for their well-being. Even news stories that seemingly aim to share “inspirational” stories about persons with disabilities often end up reinforcing such stereotypes. Common phrases embedded in the English language such as “wheelchair bound” focus on the disability instead of the person. (Also – wheelchairs provide those who need them the freedom to be independently mobile and should not be thought of as a restraint!)

Person First Language is the preferred terminology of those who are a part of the disability community because it looks at the individual first and the disability second. Similarly to how clinical psychologists and counselors encourage the use of phrases such as “clients struggling with depression” rather than “depressed patients,” Person First Language in the disability community “is an objective way of acknowledging, communicating and reporting on disabilities” (TCDD, 2019). Instead of saying “a dyslexic student,” a better statement is “a student who has dyslexia.” Person First Language aims to increase sensitivity toward individuals with disabilities and say what a person has, not what a person is. Someone with a disability might consider their disability as part of their identity; however, their disability should not define who they are. A disability should only be mentioned if it is pertinent to the topic being discussed. For example, it is appropriate to say “Sam needs help getting in the elevator because he uses a wheelchair,” but it is not relevant to mention the wheelchair when you are describing where Sam is sitting in the classroom, or how well he does in math.

For more information on using Person First Language and some examples of how it might be used, visit the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities: https://tcdd.texas.gov/resources/people-first-language/


“Communicating with and about People with Disabilities” (CDC, 2019): https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/pdf/disabilityposter_photos.pdf

“Using Person-First Language When Describing People with Disabilities” (Logsdon, 2019): https://www.verywellfamily.com/focus-on-the-person-first-is-good-etiquette-2161897

Inclusivity in the classroom

All students have the right to accessible quality education that addresses their individual needs as much as possible. According to Martin (2014), “inclusive education can be seen as a process of strengthening the capacity of an education system to reach out to all learners” (p. 703). Schools across the U.S. have been working toward the inclusion of students with disabilities in the general education classroom. Blazer (2017) pointed out that while critics of inclusion have suggested that inclusive classrooms could negatively affect students without disabilities, there is no clear evidence that this is true. In fact, several studies show that there are benefits to students both with and without disabilities. Hehir et al.’s (2014) report cited studies with results indicating that there were no negative academic effects on students without disabilities in inclusive classrooms, and that inclusion can support their social and emotional development. Hehir et al. also cited studies showing benefits to students with disabilities, including stronger academic performance than students in non-inclusive classrooms and a positive effect on the number of years of school completed. To view this report, visit https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED596134.pdf

There are several resources available through Inclusion Press that explain in more depth what inclusion means, resources for inclusive education, as well as the PATHS, MAPS, and Circles of Support planning processes that are intended to help teachers and families use person-centered approaches to planning “positive and bright futures.” To learn more about these planning processes, visit https://inclusion.com/path-maps-and-person-centered-planning/

An additional resource for educators, curriculum developers, researchers, and parents is the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines (UDL) developed by CAST. The guidelines “offer a set of concrete suggestions that can be applied to any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities” (CAST, 2018). A video by CAST’s co-founder describing the guidelines as well as a chart with more detailed information can be found at http://udlguidelines.cast.org 


Activity 1: Design an inclusive classroom activity

Design an inclusive classroom activity considering the needs of at least three different types of disabilities and incorporating the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines (UDL). 

  • How might you present the material? Visually? Auditorily? Kinesthetically?
  • How many ways can students show you what they learned?
  • How can they engage with this activity? Independently? Collaboratively? Both?

The following chart developed by Nicole Eredics can be found through the following link and may help you consider different ways to ensure the inclusivity of your activity. https://www.readingrockets.org/teaching/inclusive-classrooms


Activity 2: Provide parents with a list of local inclusive sites for community-based family activities 

With a few of your colleagues, research your school’s local community and develop a list of inclusive sites for parents. Are there museums, parks, or other local attractions that provide wheelchair ramps and/or elevators? Are there attractions that offer accommodations for children with autism who may be sensitive to noise? You may also want to create a checklist to use to evaluate how inclusive these sites are. For in-service teachers, ask your student’s families what sites and activities they might suggest.


Blazer, C. (2017). Review of the research on inclusive classrooms: Academic and social outcomes for students with and without disabilities; Best practices; and parents’ perceptions of benefits and risks. Information Capsule. Volume 1701. Research Services, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, 1–18. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED587808.pdf

CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org

Hehir, T., Grindal, T., Freeman, B., Lamoreau, R., Borquaye, Y., Burke, S., & Abt Associates, I. (2016). A Summary of the Evidence on Inclusive Education. Abt Associates.

Person-Centered Planning: PATH, MAPS, and Circles of Support: https://inclusion.com/path-maps-and-person-centered-planning/