If your child has a learning disability (LD) or other disability, and is eligible for special education services, you’ll want to be familiar with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, also known as IDEA. By law, Congress must re-authorize this legislation every five years. When it was reauthorized back in 2004, it came under scrutiny – and was in the news – once again. Let’s take a look at how IDEA first came about.

Access: Opening the Door to Special Services

Imagine it’s 1967 and you’re back in second grade – the same grade your son is in now. Like your son you’re a whiz at math, but you struggle mightily when reading a story or writing a simple sentence.

Unlike your son, though, you wouldn’t have had the benefit of any special education services. In 1967, if you were attending a public school, such services didn’t exist for kids who would today be identified with learning disabilities. You would’ve likely suffered through a difficult education experience, struggling to advance to the next grade.

Not until 1969, with the passage of the Children with Specific Learning Disabilities Act (included in Education of the Handicapped Act of 1970, Public Law 91-230, Part G), did federal law mandate support services for students with learning disabilities. Even then it took six years for Congress to pass the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975. That law officially recognized “specific learning disability” (SLD) as a category eligible for special education funding and service.

Under the law, later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a specific learning disability was defined as “…a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.” (Code of Federal Regulations §300.7(c)(10))

That definition still stands today, and children with learning disabilities comprise nearly half of the 6.3 million students in special education programs throughout the country.

According to the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs, 2.9 million students with LD, ages 3 to 21, were served under IDEA during the 2000-01 school year. That’s more than three times the number of students served during the 1976-77 school year.

Assuring Access to the General Curriculum

With access to special education services mostly solved, parents and LD advocates changed focus in the late 1980s and early 1990s. More students with LD were being identified and were receiving special education services. Too often, though, those students were not being taught the school’s general curriculum. This shortcoming was addressed with the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA when an emphasis on access to the general curriculum was added to the statute.

This change “reminds everyone that the expectation is that every child – including LD kids – is going to participate in the same curriculum and have the same academic objectives,” says Linda Lewis, coordinator of federal policy and programs for the College of Education at the University of Oregon. Lewis is also a member of the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ Professional Advisory Board.

Identification: The Sooner the Better

In recent years, parents and LD advocates have again shifted their attention. As concerns over access to the general curriculum are resolved, questions over the identification of learning disabilities have grown.

For the 2003 round of IDEA reauthorization, school officials, special education experts, and policymakers across the country said revising the eligibility criteria was a top priority.

The steady increase in the number of students identified with LD is certainly a main reason for the attention. Experts noted, however, that the LD identification process has been flawed for some time.

The process used in many states prior to the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA is officially known as the discrepancy model. It measures the discrepancy between a child’s academic performance and his intellectual ability. A significant discrepancy, according to this method, typically indicates LD. Critics have called this the “wait-to-fail” model, because it requires a child to fall behind his peers before being identified with LD.

What should be occurring, according to leading expert in reading research Dr. Reid Lyon, is early screening and intervention for all children. Lyon, Chief of Child Development and Behavior at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, says there is strong evidence for investing in early identification and prevention programs.

Lyon and other experts say early screening and intervention can:

  • Address the needs of some students who may otherwise be inaccurately labeled with a learning disability.
  • Provide services much sooner to students who may, in fact, have a learning disability.
  • Greatly benefit those students identified with LD at a young age.

“A learning disability is harder to establish than, say, a vision impairment. It’s a much longer problem-solving process,” says Linda Lewis. The sooner that process begins – whether in pre-school or kindergarten – the better, she says.

In other words, imagine yourself in second grade in 2003. You have had trouble reading, but under the discrepancy model your reading disorder might not have been identified until you reached the third or fourth grade. That kind of delayed identification might, in fact, have prevented you from ever catching up to your classmates.

On the other hand, if you had been screened for a reading disorder when you were in kindergarten and had received specialized instruction – as experts such as Lyon are suggesting – you might not have needed special services or testing accommodations.

Reviewed January 2010

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