Special Education and the Law – A Brief Overview

Federal and state laws remain in effect during the pandemic

Parents who have concerns about a child’s access to special education services can contact us to speak with an attorney free of charge.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA is a broad civil rights law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination in a wide range of settings including public and private schools (but not religious schools*).  Although the ADA does not have provisions specifically related to education, parents, students, staff, and visitors with qualifying disabilities can request accommodations under the ADA in order to have equal access to school activities. For example, schools must be physically accessible, and provide interpreters and accessible materials for those who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind, or low vision.

* While the ADA does not protect students with disabilities in religious schools, another disability antidiscrimination law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (discussed below), does cover some but not all religious schools.

For more information visit:  ADA Q&A: Back to School (Pacer Center)

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA  as well as New Hampshire state law require school districts to provide special education and related services for children with certain types of disabilities who, due to their disability, need specialized instruction and related services to receive an appropriate education. Under these laws, school districts must make a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) available to eligible children.
Every child who is eligible under IDEA receives specialized instruction and related services that are outlined in a plan, called an Individualized Education Program (IEP), that is individually designed to meet the unique needs of that student. The IEP is developed by the student’s IEP Team which includes the student’s parents or guardians and can include the student themself.  Each IEP is unique to each student.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on disability in programs and activities (whether public, private, or religious) that accept federal funds. Children with disabilities other than those set out in the IDEA but who still need accommodations, modifications, or services in order to fully participate in school, may have the right to what is known as a “504 Plan.”  504 plans are generally less detailed than IEPs, but they still need to be individually designed to provide each student with a FAPE.

Note that Section 504 covers all or nearly all public schools as well as many private and religious schools. Section 504 applies to private and religious schools if they participate in federally funded free or reduced breakfast and lunch programs or accept federal funds for various things like special education, serving at-risk students, textbooks and supplies, and professional development programs for teachers and staff.  Many private and religious schools, including many Catholic schools, accept federal funds and therefore are covered under Section 504.

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About DRCNH

Disability Rights Center – New Hampshire is a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating barriers for people with disabilities across New Hampshire. DRC is the federally designated protection and advocacy agency for New Hampshire and has authority under federal law to conduct investigations in cases of probable abuse or neglect.


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