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Rights and Responsibilities of Parents of Children With Disabilities

Parents of children with disabilities have a vital role to play in the education of their children. This fact is guaranteed in federal legislation that specifies the right of parents to participate in the educational decision-making process. As your child progresses through educational systems, knowing and following through on your rights and responsibilities ensures that you are a contributing partner with professionals who will influence your child’s future. This brochure provides you with an introduction to your rights and responsibilities in the special education process.

What Are Your Rights in the Special Education Process?

Public Law 101-476 (IDEA) clearly defines the rights of children with disabilities and their parents. A basic provision of the law is the right of parents to participate in the educational decision-making process. Your rights, more specifically, include the following:

  • Your child is entitled to a free, appropriate public education meaning it is at no cost to you as parents, and it meets the unique educational needs of your child.
  • You will be notified whenever the school wishes to evaluate your child, wants to change your child’s educational placement, or refuses your request for an evaluation or a change in placement.
  • You may request an evaluation if you think your child needs special education or related services.
  • You should be asked by your school to provide parent consent — meaning you understand and agree in writing to the evaluation and initial special education placement for your child. Your consent is voluntary and may be withdrawn at any time.
  • You may obtain an independent evaluation if you disagree with the outcome of the school’s evaluation.
  • You may request a reevaluation if you suspect your child’s current educational placement is no longer appropriate. The school must reevaluate your child at least every 3 years, but your child’s educational program must be reviewed at least once during each calendar year.
    You may have your child tested in the language he or she knows best. For example, if your child’s primary language is Spanish, he or she must be tested in Spanish. Also, students who are hearing impaired have the right to an interpreter during the testing.
  • The school must communicate with you in your primary language. The school is required to take whatever action is necessary to ensure that you understand its oral and written communication, including arranging for an interpreter if you are hearing impaired or if your primary language is not English.
  • You may review all of your child’s records and obtain copies of these records, but the school may charge you a reasonable fee for making copies. Only you, as parents, and those persons directly involved in the education of your child will be given access to personal records. If you feel any of the information in your child’s records is inaccurate, misleading, or violates the privacy or other rights of your child, you may request that the information be changed. If the school refuses your request, you then have the right to request a hearing to challenge the questionable information in your child’s records.
  • You must be fully informed by the school of all the rights provided to you and your child under the law.
  • You may participate in the development of your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) or, in the case of a child under school age, the development of an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). The IEP and IFSP are written statements of the educational program designed to meet your child’s unique needs. The school must make every possible effort to notify you of the IEP or IFSP meeting and arrange it at a time and place agreeable to you. As an important member of the team, you may attend the IEP or IFSP meeting and share your ideas about your child’s special needs, the type of program appropriate to meeting those needs, and the related services the school will provide to help your child benefit from his or her educational program.
  • You may have your child educated in the least restrictive school setting possible. Every effort should be made to develop an educational program that will provide the greatest amount of contact with children who are not disabled.
  • You may request a due process hearing to resolve differences with the school that could not be resolved informally.

What Are Your Responsibilities in the Special Education Process?

Parental responsibilities to ensure that a child’s rights are being protected are less clearly defined than are parental rights. These responsibilities vary depending on the child’s disabling condition and other factors. Some of the following suggestions may be helpful:

  • Develop a partnership with the school or agency. You are now an important member of the team. Share relevant information about your child’s education and development. Your observations and suggestions can be a valuable resource to aid your child’s progress.
  • Learn as much as you can about your rights and the rights of your child. Ask the school to explain these rights as well as the regulations in effect for your district and state before you agree to a special education program for your child. Contact disability organizations for their publications on special education rights.
  • Ask for clarification of any aspect of the program that is unclear to you. Educational and medical terms can be confusing, so do not hesitate to ask.
  • Make sure you understand the program specified on the IEP or IFSP before agreeing to it or signing it. Ask yourself if what is planned corresponds with your knowledge of your child’s needs.
  • Consider how your child might be included in the regular school activities program. Do not forget areas such as lunch, recess, art, music, and physical education.
  • Monitor your child’s progress. If your child is not progressing, discuss it with the teacher and determine whether the program should be modified. As a parent, you can initiate review of your child’s educational program.
  • Discuss with the school or agency any problems that may occur with your child’s assessment, placement, or educational program. It is best to try to resolve problems directly with the agency or school. In some situations, you may be uncertain as to how you should resolve a problem. All states have advocacy agencies that can usually provide you with the guidance you need to pursue your case.
  • Keep records. There may be many questions and comments about your child that you will want to discuss, as well as meetings and phone conversations you will want to remember. It is easy to forget information useful to your child’s development and education if it is not written down.
  • Join a parent organization. In addition to the opportunity to share knowledge and support, a parent group can be an effective force on behalf of your child. Many times parents find that as a group they have the power to bring about needed changes that strengthen special services.

What Can You Offer the IEP or IFSP Process?

In the final analysis, parents of children with disabilities should be involved in the IEP or IFSP process as much as they want to be and as much as they can be. The following are suggestions for ways parents can become involved:

  • Before attending an IEP or IFSP meeting, make a list of things you want your child to learn.
    Bring any information the school or agency may not already have to the IEP or IFSP meeting. Examples include copies of medical records, past school records, and test and medical evaluation results.
  • Discuss what related services your child may need. Your child may need to be involved with many other specialists and professionals besides his or her teacher, including occupational therapists, physical therapists, or speech-language pathologists.
  • Discuss what assistive technology devices or services your child may need and have these listed in your child’s IEP or IFSP.
  • Ask what you can do at home to support the program.
  • Make sure the goals and objectives listed in the IEP or IFSP are specific and measurable.
  • Periodically, ask for a report on your child’s progress.
  • Regard your child’s education as a cooperative effort. If, at any point, you and the school cannot reach an agreement over your child’s educational and developmental needs, ask to have another meeting. Remember, compromise on your part and the school’s or agency’s part may be important in resolving conflicts and maintaining a good working relationship. If, after a second meeting, there is still a conflict over your child’s program, you may wish to ask for a state mediator or a due process hearing.

What Resources Are Available?

Many organizations have information to help guide you through the special education process. Since the specific criteria and procedures used by school districts vary, it is important to familiarize yourself with the information provided by state and local agencies. You will find your local school district’s director of special education and his or her staff helpful in accessing such information and guiding you through the process.

Additional resources are available from national disability organizations. Some of them have state and local chapters that can provide more locally based support. All states now have federally supported parent information and training centers. The contacts cited below may be able to help you locate such a center in your state:

ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education
The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC)
1920 Association Drive
Reston, VA 22091-1589

National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY)
PO Box 1492
Washington, DC 20013-1492

National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (1993). NICHCY Briefing Paper. Individualized Education Programs (IEPs): Federal Regulations and Appendix C to Part 300. Washington, DC.
National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (1993). NICHCY News Digest. Questions and Answers about the IDEA, Volume 3, Number 2. Washington, DC.

Written by the staff of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education.
This publication was prepared by ACCESS ERIC in association with the ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education, with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under Contract No. RR92024001. The opinions expressed in this brochure do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Education. The brochure is in the public domain. Authorization to reproduce it in whole or in part is granted.