There are three major laws created to protect persons with disabilities:

  1. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973)
  2. Individuals with Disabilities Act, IDEA (1975, 1990, 1997, 2004)
  3. Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA (1990)


IDEA specifically targets students, ages 0-21, in grades pre-school through 12th grade that have been identified as having one of the following thirteen disabilities listed in the law.

• autism
• deaf-blindness
• deafness
• emotional disturbance
• hearing impairment
• intellectual disability
• multiple disabilities
• orthopedic impairment
• other health impairment (includes ADHD)
• specific learning disability (includes dyslexia)
• speech or language impairment
• traumatic brain injury
• visual impairment (including blindness)

Section 504, a broader civil rights act, protects all people in institutions funded by federal monies from being discriminated against because of their disability.

ADA is the broadest law and protects all people with disabilities in public places, requiring buildings, side walks, parking lots and other public spaces to be accessible for people with all disabilities.



IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004)

1. Child Find (Identifying Disabilities)

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 is a federal law that requires all local education agencies (LEAs), public schools, to locate and evaluate all children with disabilities ages 3-21 that may require special education and/or related services. 

This evaluation service is provided for private and public school students, homeless, and migrant students, as well as students that are advancing from grade to grade (not failing).

If you suspect your child of having a disability, you may contact the special education or child find coordinator of the school district in which you live to request an evaluation. 

Important Facts:

  • The evaluation is FREE.
  • Evaluation must be comprehensive, including vision and hearing screening.
  • If your child has a disability, you are not obligated to enroll your child in school.
  • If your child has a disability, he/she may be eligible for related services such as speech or occupational therapy.
  • Related services are provided by the school, free of costs to you.

Your child may be evaluated for one of more of the following:

  • Learning Disabilities
  • Speech/Language Delays
  • Autism
  • Visual Impairment
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Physical Disabilities
  • Intellectual Disabilities
  • Developmental Delays

2.  Related Services

Related services include therapies and other supportive services that students with disabilities require to be able to learn and benefit from an education. The following is an abbreviated list of services that may be offered through the public school system.

  • Speech/language therapy
  • Occupational  and physical therapy
  • Audiology services
  • Psychological and counseling services
  • Rehabilitation, orientation and mobility services
  • Evaluation and medical services for diagnostic purposes

Although schools are obligated by law to provide related services to both public and private school students, many schools are understaffed and overloaded with students needing these services.  Therefore, when requesting a related service from an LEA, keep in mind that they may not be able to provide the level of assistance you are seeking for your child. For example, students eligible for speech/language therapy typically receive 30 minutes of therapy twice per week. This may or may not be available depending on each school district’s staffing.

3. Individual Education Plan IEP

After a child is evaluated and ruled eligible for special education services, a team of professionals develops an Individual Education Plan that addresses annual education goals, related services, needed accommodations and assistive technology .

  • This plan is re-evaluated at least once every year and may be modified at any point in the school year at the request of the teacher and/or parent.
  • Parents have a right to obtain copies of all IEPs, past and current.
  • Parents have a right to give input as to the content of the IEP.
  • Parents have a right to disagree with IEP content and voice your concerns.

Once you decide to homeschool, be sure to obtain a current copy of your child’s IEP from the school district, so you can be aware of the current goals, along with needed related services and technology. You may determine to continue with some components of the IEP, however, you are not obligated to if you find that it is not useful for homeschooling. On the other hand, there are situations where a current IEP will be helpful such as receiving accommodations for national standardized testing or gaining admission to technical school or university programs for students with special needs.

When re-admitting your child to public school the following may apply:

  • Within the same school year, basically the same IEP will continue, but the IEP team will meet to update and modify it; in some cases a re-evaluation may be needed.
  • After one school year has expired, the school may administer an achievement or other types of tests for information to update the IEP.
  • After 3 school years, a complete comprehensive evaluation will be conducted and a new IEP written.

Sources: Wrights Law & TN SPED Framework

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 1973

Section 504 covers qualified students with disabilities who attend schools that receive federal financial assistance. To be protected under Section 504, a student must be determined to:

(1) have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; or

(2) have a record of such an impairment; or

(3) be regarded as having such an impairment.

Section 504 requires that school districts provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to qualified students in their jurisdictions who have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

Physical or mental impairment:

Any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; urinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine; or any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.

The regulations do not give an exhaustive list of specific diseases and conditions that may constitute physical or mental impairments because of the difficulty of ensuring the comprehensiveness of such a list.

Major life activities: 

Includes functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working; eating, sleeping, standing, lifting, bending, reading, concentrating, thinking, and communicating; also major bodily functions such as the functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.  This list is not exhaustive as other conditions may also limit one or more major life activities.

Source: United States Department of Education, 504 Facts


IEP vs 504 Plan

Since Section 504 prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities, it assures that a child with a disability has equal access to an education by providing accommodations and/or modifications as needed. A 504 plan provides services and changes to the environment to help the student learn alongside his/her peers, in the general education classroom, whereas an IEP may require services in a separate classroom such as a resource room and/or the general classroom. Furthermore, Section 504 has a broader definition of disability than IDEA, therefore, a child that doesn’t qualify for special education services may qualify for assistance under Section 504. The US Office of Special Education Programs outlines specific components to be included in all IEPs, so across all school districts, IEPs have a similar format. On the other hand, 504 plans have no template, thus will vary from district to district.

Source:, IEPs & 504 Plans

Accommodations and Modifications

An accommodation is a change in how instruction is given or change in the physical environment that levels the playing field for a student and assists in providing support and access to learning that is equivalent to peers. It focuses on how a child learns, not what. The standards and outcomes are still the same as other children in that grade level.  For example, a child that has dyslexia may use audio books to read through history assignments or a student with dysgraphia may take weekly spelling tests orally. An accommodation does not change the standard, the curriculum, or the expectation.

A modification is a change in what the student is learning such as standards and curriculum. What the student learns is based on his/her individual capabilities and may come in the form of reduced paragraphs in a written assignment, fewer math problems or spelling words, or books below grade level reading. This means the curriculum is modified so that it is easier for the child to understand. Curriculum may be condensed, skipped, deleted, or taught on a much lower grade level than same age peers.

Understood offers a helpful chart,  Accommodations & Modifications

Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA (1990)

This is federal legislation passed in 1990 that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in areas of employment opportunities, access to transportation, public accommodations, communications, and government activities. The law prohibits private employers, state and local governments, and employment agencies from discriminating against all people with disabilities. Employers are required to make reasonable accommodations in order for a disabled person to perform their job.

In planning for your child’s future whether it’s trade school, college or employment, understanding ADA guidelines can help you prepare him/her to self-advocate.

Key Aspects of ADA:

  • is a piece of employment law passed by congress in 1990 to prevent workplace and hiring discrimination against employees with disabilities of all kinds
  • applies to all businesses with 15 or more employees and includes private enterprise as well as state and local government employers
  • increases accessibility and mobility for disabled persons by mandating handicap-accessible ramps and other accommodations in public places and businesses