Significant U.S. laws impacting inclusive education for children and young adults are highlighted here. These laws protect the rights of students with disabilities.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

The Rehabilitation Act

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)


President Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act on the South Lawn of the White House
President Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act on the South Lawn of the White House.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the signature disability rights law of the United States and the model for subsequent legislation in other countries, as well as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Passed in 1990, the ADA prohibits discrimination and establishes equal rights for individuals with disabilities to participate in all aspects of everyday life, including education. Key highlights of the ADA follow.

Defining a Person with a Disability under the ADA

The ADA includes a basic three-part definition of disability:

  • Disability. — The term ‘disability’ means, with respect to an individual–
  • a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual;
  • a record of such an impairment; or
  • being regarded as having such an impairment.

The word impairment is defined as being:

  • Any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems, such as neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin, and endocrine; or
  • Any mental or psychological disorder, such as an intellectual disability (formerly termed “mental retardation”), organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.

An impairment is a disability if it substantially limits the ability of an individual to perform a major life activity in comparison to most people in the general population.

Contents of the ADA

The ADA is divided into five titles that address the following issues:

Title I: Employment

Title II: Public Services

Title III: Public Accommodations

Title IV: Telecommunications

Title V: Miscellaneous Provisions

ADA and Education

The protections that the ADA provides for people with disabilities apply to nonsectarian private schools (public schools), which all students are legally entitled to attend and are required by law to be in operation across the United States. However, the protections do not extend to private schools. However, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, schools must also provide reasonable accommodations for students that need them in order to perform essential functions in their studies.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a U.S. federal law that governs how early intervention, special education, and related services are provided to children and youth with disabilities. Originally written to prevent students from being excluded from education, the original version of the law established that all students with disabilities must be able to receive a free and public education (FAPE). Since then, its scope has expanded to cover all services related to education, intervention and learning from birth to 21 years of age.

IDEA establishes that students’ disabilities must fall into one of the following categories in order for them to qualify for special education services: autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment (including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD), a specific learning disability, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, and/or visual impairment, including blindness. Their disability must result in them needing special education services in order to progress through school.

Special education provided under IDEA is instruction that is specially designed to meet the specific needs of a child with a disability. It may occur in alternative locations from a classroom setting or in multiple setting and can include additional forms of therapy. All special instruction must take place in the least restrictive environment (LRE) in which a student can learn. Although special education takes place primarily in settings that are apart from those where the education of other students occurs, IDEA seeks to uphold inclusive principle by requiring that students with disabilities must be educated with peer students who do not have disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate, a requirement that applies to students in private institutions and other facilities too.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has four parts. Part B and C carry the most significance with regard to education for students with disabilities.

Part A – General Provisions

  • This part of the law establishes general educational guidelines for children who are between the ages of 3 and 21.

Part B – Assistance for Education of All Children with Disabilities

  • This part of the law addresses education needs for children and youth with developmental delays who are between the ages of 3 and 21.
  • The law also establishes the requirement for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which school officials and education design for each individual student who requires special education.

Part C – Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities

  • This part of the law addresses all activities related to early intervention and services for infants and toddlers with developmental delays (0-3 years of age).
  • The Program for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities is addressed in Part C. This program assists states in operating a comprehensive statewide program of early intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities aged from birth through 2 years, as well as services for their families.

Part D – National Activities to Improve Education of Children with Disabilities

  • This part of the law concerns usage of federal funds to implement IDEA and provide special education in schools across the United States.

Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the current U.S. federal law that oversees general education in the United States. The law is a reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), which is the principal law that oversees public funding for education in the U.S. The Every Student Succeeds Act was passed in 2015, and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the previous version of the law.

ESSA and Inclusive Education

In the United States, policymakers have promoted inclusive education by including students with disabilities in laws that govern the whole general education system. Whereas laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) specifically address education for students with disabilities, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) addresses all elementary and secondary education programs that receive funding from the federal government. Like its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), ESSA recognizes that students with disabilities belong in the general education system and that they should be held to high expectations, just like other students.

Annual Statewide Tests and Alternate Assessments

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, individual states have considerable power over public elementary and secondary education, including the responsibility to create and administer annual testing assessments in reading and math for all students. ESSA requires that all states test students in the public education system in Reading and Math from grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Students with disabilities must have their academic progress measured and reported consistently, and must also take part in assessments of student progress that are conducted by states and school districts. This requirement, which was established by the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, is crucial to promoting inclusive education since it ensures that students with disabilities will continue to have access to the general curriculum and that their academic progress will be of greater importance to school districts and states.

Some students with significant cognitive disabilities take alternate assessments, which use testing standards that are different from those that apply to assessments that their peers take. Less than 10% of students with disabilities in the United States (who represent 1% of the total U.S. student population) have disabilities that are significant enough to require that they should take these tests instead of standard statewide assessments, but traditionally many students have been excluded from standard assessments that they are capable of taking and forced to take alternate assessments instead. The Every Student Succeeds Act establishes a 1% cap on the percentage of students in each state who can take an alternate assessment, so that students with disabilities do not take them unnecessarily.

State Accountability Systems

States must also maintain accountability systems that collect data about students’ academic progress that can be used to ensure that schools provide all students with a quality education. ESSA requires that these accountability systems include data that pertains to certain specific subgroups of students, including students with disabilities. The systems must report progress within these subgroups as measured by statewide annual assessments and high school graduation rates. By collecting data through the reports produced with information from their accountability systems, states are more able to monitor students’ overall progress and helps states design and implement a curriculum that has appropriate and challenging academic standards.

The Rehabilitation Act

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a U.S. federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in:

  • Federal employment;
  • Programs that are run by federal agencies;
  • Programs that receive financial assistance from the federal government;
  • Employment practices of federal contractors.

The Rehabilitation Act is split into multiple sections that address different aspects of discrimination against people with disabilities. The most noteworthy sections include:

Section 501: This section bans employers within the federal government from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. Federal government officials are also required to take affirmative action to hire individuals with disabilities.

Section 503: This section bans discrimination by employers more broadly and requires that contractors who work for the federal government also take affirmative action to hire workers with disabilities. Over time, the terms of required affirmative action under Section 503 have evolved with an approval of new regulations by the federal government, which has set a current goal of having federal contractors whose workforce has at least 7% individuals with disabilities.

Section 504: This section prohibits federal agencies and programs that receive financial assistance from the federal government from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities. This section is particularly relevant to education for people with disabilities since public school districts, institutions of higher education, and other state and local education agencies all receive federal financial assistance. Section 504 requires that every school district provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to any qualified student with a disability who lives within their jurisdiction. This applies regardless of the nature of severity of a student’s disability. Section 504 is therefore critical to facilitating inclusive education in the United States, as it mandates that no qualified individual with  disabilities be excluded from participating in education programs that receive federal financial assistance.

Section 508: This section requires that federal electronic and information technology should be accessible to people with disabilities. In this context, accessible technology does rely on one sense or the ability of the user and can be operated multiple ways, allowing individuals with disabilities to use it without being constrained by their circumstances.

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The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a U.S. federal law that upholds the privacy of student education records. Written to protect students, the law establishes the rights of parents/legal guardians with regard to how schools manage their children’s education records. When a student turns 18, they receive the legal rights concerning their records that were previously awarded to their parents/guardians.

Under FERPA, all parents have the right to access and review their children’s education records. They may do so by filing a formal request that schools must respond to by providing the requested records within 45 days. Parents with children who receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have additional rights to access education records.

Schools are not allowed to disclose personal information about students to other parties without the written consent of parents, except in cases where the information would be needed by certain parties, such as:

  • Another school where a student plans to enroll;
  • State or local education officials who are auditing or evaluating education programs;
  • Other school officials who have legitimate educational interests in a student.

Photo credit:  George Bush Presidential Library and Museum