Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) provide the basis for special education services and equipment provided to children with disabilities in the United States. For families, IEP meetings can be stressful and overwhelming. Having information about the law upon which IEPs are based can empower parents to advocate for their children with more confidence.
All aspects of the IEP are controlled by federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Improvement Act (IDEA) at and the IDEA’s implementing regulations. States have also adopted federal law into their state statutes and regulations, but these state laws may not restrict the protections provided by federal law (they may provide more protection, but they may not take away protections in the federal law). Thus, for the purposes of this blog post, on federal law will be addressed.
Before an IEP may be developed, the child must be found eligible in one or more disability categories: “intellectual disabilities, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance (referred to in this chapter as “emotional disturbance”), orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities” “Visual impairment, including blindness, is defined as, “an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness.” This is a broad definition and is the one which must be used. Some states include more restrictive language, such as minimum acuity levels, but these cannot restrict the broader federal definition.
You may request that your child be evaluated to determine eligibility. Your request should be in writing, should set forth every area of need you suspect (see above) as well as areas in which your child might need related services (independent mobility, gross motor, fine motor, speech, oral-motor, behavior-related, anxiety-related, etc. skills). Your request should state that it may serve as “permission to evaluate” because this is the document needed to start the timeline during which the school must complete the evaluations. Some schools will insist on using their own “permission to evaluate” form, so sign it as soon as possible because the date of the “permission to evaluate” form relates to the time frame in which the school must complete the evaluation.
Once eligibility has been determined, an IEP team is assembled. At least one parent and at least one administrator must be part of the IEP team, and teachers and other personnel working with the child should attend the team meeting. Also, the child may attend a portion of the IEP meeting at any age, when appropriate.
The IEP team must review parental concerns, the child’s strengths, evaluations, reports, and the academic, developmental, and functional needs of the child. Additionally, the IEP team must consider “special circumstances” for the child, and one of these special circumstances relates to blind or visually impaired children, who must receive Braille instruction unless the IEP team determines, based on an evaluation of current and future reading and writing, that Braille is inappropriate for the child. Other special circumstances include assistive technology, communication needs, behavioral needs, and limited English proficiency.
Once all this information has been compiled and discussed, the IEP team will set forth the child’s present levels of academic and functional performance in writing, including a description of how the child’s disability affects the child’s involvement and progress in the general education curriculum. The IEP team will then develop measurable annual goals to allow the child to progress in the general education curriculum and to meet other educational needs resulting from the disability. Transition goals (those related to post-secondary training, education, employment, and, where appropriate, independent living skills), must be included in the IEP during which the student will become sixteen years old (this age is lowered to fourteen in most states). Only after the goals, services, and accommodations have been determined may the IEP team decide upon the “frequency, location, and duration of those services and modifications.” In other words, service time and placement decisions may be made only after the IEP has been fully developed.
The school must notify the parent of any changes to an IEP through a process called “prior written notice.” However, even if a parent disagrees with the changes proposed, IEPs will become effective unless the parent files an objection to the IEP and requests either mediation or a due process hearing within the time frame set forth by your state. You will find information on the exact timelines in the “Procedural Safeguards” documents your school must provide to you. If you file for due process or mediation, you may still negotiate with the school district. Many settlements are made on the eve of due process hearings.
Federal law sets forth general information about mediation and due process procedures but a great deal of information about these options, especially information regarding time deadlines, is specific to your state and is found in your state’s “Procedural Safeguards.” You have the right to appeal from either mediation or due process to a court. For more information about mediation, due process, and appeals, you should contact your state Parent Information Resource Center or an attorney who specializes in special education law.