Special Education Laws & Process 

On this page we will define and explain the processes surrounding Special Education, including who qualifies for Special Education, and what services it provides. For more information on Special Education regulations, laws, and terms, see our Special Education Supports and Services page.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

IDEA was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1975 and was originally called the "Education of All Handicapped Children Act." Congress has amended and renamed the law several times (IDEA 2004, aka IDEIA). IDEA guarantees children with disabilities access to a free appropriate public education (also called FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE).

IDEA defines special education as specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parent, that meets the unique needs of a child with a disability, including classroom instruction, physical education instruction, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and other institutions.

Special Education includes related services such as transportation and development, corrective, and other supportive services that may be required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education including identification and assessment of disabling conditions in children. Supportive services include assistive technology, speech-language pathology, audiology, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, recreation and therapeutic recreation, social work, counseling and rehabilitation counseling, orientation and mobility services, and medical services, except that such medical services shall be for diagnostic and evaluation purposes only.

IDEA contains four parts, and Part B of IDEA outlines the Special Education process which is available to eligible students with disabilities, age 3 through graduation, or until age 22.

The Special Education Process

Throughout the process, parents and students will become part of the team that makes decisions about the individualized educational program. It is important for parents to become real partners in the process of making the decisions about their children. The information that a parent can share is very important to the school. It is also important for parents to understand and respect the point of view of the school personnel. By treating each other with mutual respect and working together, parents and school personnel can more effectively develop an appropriate program for the child.

Referral/Child Find

The school district is required to have a procedure for finding children with disabilities so that they can be supported. Either a parent or school personnel may refer a child to be evaluated to see if Special Education services are needed. A request for the evaluation is considered the referral.

Evaluation (Assessment)

After receiving consent from a parent, an evaluation to determine eligibility for Special Education will take place to gather information about the child. This information will be used in decisions about whether the child is eligible for services and help identify the disability category that best describes the student’s needs in the educational setting. This information also helps determine the strengths and areas of need for the child that will be help lead to decisions about the services and supports the child needs.

The evaluation should be appropriate for the child and conform to a number of legal requirements that are listed in the law. Parents will be better able to participate in the IEP process if they understand the results of the evaluation. If parents disagree with the results of the evaluation, they may request an independent evaluation (testing given by someone outside the school district) at the school district’s expense, within certain guidelines.

Some children who do not qualify for Special Education may be eligible for services under Section 504, an act that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities. A section 504 plan is developed by a team that includes the student’s parents, and can provide the student with necessary accommodations or services.

Eligibility (Classification)

The team (including the parents) reviews the data from the evaluation and decides if the child qualifies in one of the categories that are served in Special Education. The requirements for each category are determined by federal and state law.

According to IDEA 2004, a “child with a disability” is a child who meets the requirements (defined by each state’s regulations) of one or more of the disabilities listed below, has a disability which adversely affects the student's educational performance, and needs specialized instruction and/or related services to benefit from his/her education. Each of the disability categories have specific criteria or requirements that must be met for a student to be classified under it. These requirements are defined in state regulations. It is possible for a child to have a medically diagnosed disability and not meet criteria for an IDEA disability category. These categories are gateways into services and do not define the services and supports a student receives.

Disabilities covered by Special Education include:

  • Autism
  • Deaf/blindness
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Hearing impairment/deafness
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment (such as asthma, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, Tourette syndrome, and some kinds of acquired brain injuries, etc.)
  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech/language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment (including blindness)
  • Developmental delay (ages 3 - 7 only)

*School districts may choose to use the Developmental delay category (which is used in Early Intervention age 0-3) for children ages 3-7 instead of another category if the child meets the eligibility criteria.

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

Section 504 law requires that any program that receives federal funds make their programs and activities accessible to all individuals with disabilities. The law states that “No qualified individual with disabilities, shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Under Section 504, a person with a disability:

  • Has a mental or physical impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • Has a record of such impairments; or • Is regarded as having such an impairment.

It may not be necessary for an individual to have a medical diagnosis in order to be eligible for protection under Section 504, if they have a record of or are regarded as having an impairment.

Major Life Activities include, but are not limited to, functions such as:

  • Caring for oneself
  • Performing manual tasks
  • Seeing
  • Sleeping
  • Walking
  • Standing
  • Lifting
  • Bending
  • Speaking
  • Breathing
  • Learning
  • Reading
  • Concentrating
  • Thinking
  • Communicating
  • Working
  • Non-voluntary bodily functions

If an individual has a disability that substantially limits one or more of these life activities, they are eligible for accommodations and protections under Section 504.

Section 504 has three major areas of emphasis:

  1. Employment
  2. Program Accessibility
  3. Public Education


Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

Center for Parent Information and Resources
A large resource library related to children with disabilities. Locate organizations and agencies within each state that address disability-related issues.

Find Your Parent Center
Parent Centers provide education and referrals for families with a child who has a disability, as well as the professionals who work with them. There are almost 100 Parent Training and Information Centers (PTIs) and Community Parent Resource Centers (CPRCs) in the US states and Territories; Center for Parent Information & Resources.

U.S. Department of Education
Official website of the U.S. Department of Education.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
Official U.S. Department of Education website of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act including Part B (ages 3-21) and Part C (ages birth-2).

IDEA Procedural Safeguards (Part B)
Information about safeguards available to the parents of a child with a disability.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
Clarifies pertinent requirements of Section 504 and answers more than 40 often-asked questions; U.S. Department of Education.

Services for Patients & Families in Utah (UT)

For services not listed above, browse our Services categories or search our database.

* number of provider listings may vary by how states categorize services, whether providers are listed by organization or individual, how services are organized in the state, and other factors; Nationwide (NW) providers are generally limited to web-based services, provider locator services, and organizations that serve children from across the nation.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: July 2013; last update/revision: February 2021
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Author: Gina Pola-Money
Reviewers: Tina Persels
Esperanza Reyes, MS
Funding: The Medical Home Portal thanks Utah Parent Center for their contribution to this page.
Authoring history
2013: first version: Shena McAuliffe, MFAR; Tina PerselsR
AAuthor; CAContributing Author; SASenior Author; RReviewer