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Students with disabilities have rights in school, but those rights can depend on many things:

  • Is the student’s disability affecting their grades or ability to learn?
  • Is the student attending a public or private school? 
  • Is the student in grades kindergarten through high school? Or are they in college?
  • Does the school receive federal funding?

This page will give students with disabilities and their parents some basic information about the laws protecting students with disabilities. Since different laws apply in different situations, it is best to contact someone about your (or your child’s) specific situation if you have questions. Some resources are at the bottom of this page.

What laws protect students with disabilities?

There are 3 main federal laws about the rights of students with disabilities. 

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) - a law that requires special education and related services for students with disabilities. IDEA does not apply to all students with disabilities.   
  •  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) - a law that protects students with disabilities from discrimination in schools that receive federal funding
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) - a law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination by state and local governments, which includes public schools

Read more information about the difference in these laws and how they relate to each other

Your state may have other laws about education for students with disabilities.

Note: The information below is for students in public schools grades K-12. Learn more about the rights of students in private schools or colleges.

College and private school students

Your rights may be different if you are attending a college or university or if you are a student at a private school.

What do public K-12 schools have to do?

Federal law says schools have to:

  • Identify every child with a disability who needs extra services or instruction to learn
  • Test and decide a child’s needs in school
  • Allow children with disabilities to attend school with students without disabilities 
  • Provide the child with a free appropriate public education 

What is a free appropriate public education (FAPE)? 

Students should have access to education in public schools at no cost to them. An appropriate education is one that meets the education needs of the individual student. Students with disabilities should have the same quality of education that students without disabilities have.

Where should students with disabilities be taught?

Students with disabilities can be taught in:

  • regular classes with students without disabilities
  • regular classes with additional aids and services
  • special education and additional services in separate classrooms for some or all of the school day

Students with disabilities should be in the same classes and activities with students without disabilities as much as possible, as long as it still meets the needs of the student.

What services are available?

The school should test the student if the student may need more help. This testing is called evaluation. Any extra services that the students needs based on the evaluation is called “additional related services.”

  • Speech, occupational, and physical therapy
  • Psychological counseling
  • Medical diagnostic services 
  • School nurse services
  • Orientation and mobility services for visual disabilities
  • Interpreting services

These services must be necessary for the child’s education.

Testing for services (evaluation)

Students have the right to be tested to see what setting will work best for them and if they need more services. Students should be retested after some time has passed to see if their needs have changed. 

Parent and guardian rights

Schools must have due process procedures. Due process means that there are clear steps that parents and guardians can take when they disagree with a school’s decision. 

If you are a parent or guardian, due process allows you to:

  • Get written documents of some decisions
  • Review your child’s records
  • Challenge decisions about your child’s education

Parents and guardians have the right to a fair hearing where they can speak and have a lawyer present.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

IDEA covers children ages 3-21 when:

  1. The student is in at least one of these 13 disability categories (as determined by a team of different types of school professionals)
    1. Autism
    2. Deafness
    3. Deaf-blindness
    4. Hearing impairments
    5. Intellectual disability
    6. Multiple disabilities
    7. Orthopedic impairments
    8. Other health impairments
    9. Serious emotional disturbance
    10. Specific learning disabilities
    11. Speech or language impairments
    12. Traumatic brain injury
    13. Visual impairments


  1. The student needs special education and related services. 

If the student does not meet the criteria for IDEA, they may still have rights under Section 504 or the ADA.

Individual Education Plan (IEP)

An IEP is usually used only for students who meet IDEA eligibility (listed in the section above).  It is a written plan for the student's special education and related services.

An IEP is created when after a child has been evaluated and the evaluation shows that the student is eligible for special education. Once the student is eligible for special education services, the school has 30 days to hold the first IEP meeting.

After that, an IEP is updated every year for that student. 

If you do not agree with the IEP, you may discuss your concerns with the IEP team. If that doesn’t work, you can ask for mediation or a due process hearing. You can also file a complaint with the state education agency.

Check out information for parents about the IEP process to learn more.

IEP meetings

The student and the parent have a right to attend and speak in all school meetings that discuss the student’s education. The IEP meeting is to discuss, create, or change a program to meet the student’s individual learning needs. 

An IEP meeting must be held at least once a year. It is the school’s responsibility to schedule and organize the meeting. 

The school must give you details about the meeting in writing. The notice should include:

  • the reason for the meeting;
  • the time and place;
  • who will be there; and
  • your right to invite others who know and work with the student to the meeting.

You may ask for an IEP meeting at any time, if you feel that the IEP if you think the student’s services, placement, or goals should change. Here is more information about IEP meetings.

Ask us

Do you have questions about education rights for students with disabilities? Our technical assistant specialists are here to help, Monday to Friday.

You can contact us by phone, email, or online form.

We also offer trainings, webinars, and online courses.

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