Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: What School OTs Need to Know

What School OTs Need to Know
Cross Country Education
February 06, 2023 01:15 AM (GMT-04:00)
Educator Resources

An Overview of IDEA for School-based Occupational Therapists

So, what’s the big IDEA anyway?

IDEA is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It started as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in 1975, was changed to IDEA in 1990 and was reauthorized in 2004. Before this critical legislation was passed, many children were prevented from having access to education and opportunities to learn. Some states even had specific laws keeping students with vision, hearing, emotional or intellectual disabilities from attending school.

If you’re a school-based occupational therapist, IDEA is why your role exists. Therefore, you should have a basic understanding of the act and how it impacts the students you serve and the work you do. In this Q&A, we’ll address some top questions about IDEA as it relates to occupational therapy. If you want to take a deeper dive, check out the U.S. Department of Education’s IDEA site.

What is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a law that ensures children with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate education. It outlines how states and agencies must provide early intervention (from birth through age 2) and special education and related services (from ages 3 through 21).

Why does the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act grant these rights?

The IDEA states: “Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities” (

What part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act covers school-based occupational therapy?

Section 300.34 Related Services of the Individuals with Disabilities Act covers school-based occupational therapy. The act defines related services as “…transportation and such developmental, corrective, and other supportive services as are required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education, and includes speech-language pathology and audiology services, interpreting services, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, recreation, including therapeutic recreation, early identification and assessment of disabilities in children, counseling services, including rehabilitation counseling, orientation and mobility services, and medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes. Related services also include school health services and school nurse services, social work services in schools, and parent counseling and training.” (

How does the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act define occupational therapy?

The act stipulates that occupational therapy must be delivered by a qualified OT and includes: “(A) Improving, developing, or restoring functions impaired or lost through illness, injury, or deprivation; (B) Improving ability to perform tasks for independent functioning if functions are impaired or lost; and (C) Preventing, through early intervention, initial or further impairment or loss of function” (

How do school OTs operate under IDEA?

According to the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), “…occupational therapy practitioners collaborate with early childhood and school teams to promote the physical, communication, cognitive, adaptive, and social-emotional domains of infants and toddlers. As a related service…occupational therapy practitioners support children and youth by promoting participation in home, school, and community life” (AOTA).

How does the state affect the way IDEA is implemented?

Each state must comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; however, they can implement it differently. Every year, states must provide a State Performance Plan (SPP) and Annual Performance Report (APR) to show their plan to implement and improve IDEA and how they are performing ( This means, from state to state, the ways school districts expect OTs to operate will differ. Also, you may find distinct differences in how Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are implemented. There’s a learning curve between states, but it shouldn’t be too challenging to adapt, thanks to IDEA.

How are IEPs related to IDEA?

IDEA is the law that defines and requires the use of IEPs. The IEP is a written statement individualized for each child with a disability that includes present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, annual goals, a statement of services, aides, modifications, supports, accommodations, personnel, and transition services ( Each state MUST use IEPs.

What does IDEA say about IEP Teams and meetings?

IDEA says each child with a disability must have an IEP team. The team is to include the parents, at least one general ed teacher, at least one special education teacher, a representative of the public agency, an individual to interpret the results, the child if appropriate, and related services personnel (including OTs) if appropriate (

A significant part your role as a school-based occupational therapist requires you to be compliant with specific laws and most of them stem from IDEA. That’s why it’s important to be familiar with this act. Thanks to IDEA, today, more than 7.5 million children with disabilities receive special education and related services (!

Find out where students across our nation need your specialized skills as a school OT!

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