United States Laws
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 1997
What is the IDEA?
The Education for All Handicapped Children Act was enacted in 1975 and reauthorized to be the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990. When amended in 1997, it provided for a "free appropriate public education" for all children with disabilities from preschool through high school. IDEA was reauthorized in 2004 as “No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and since that time has received numerous amendments (e.g., in 2006, 2008, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017 - See IDEA history). The law provides regulations, funding, and assistance to states (i.e., state and local education agencies) for implementation. It also provides grants and activities in other areas such as research, personnel development, and early intervention. The Office of Special Education Programs in the US Department of Education administers IDEA.
One of the ways a free appropriate public education is developed for students with disabilities is through a documented yearly process called the Individual Education Plan (IEP). For the IEP, a team (including educators, parents, administrators, specialists, and the child) determines the strengths and needs of the child, creates goals and objectives that will be accomplished in the coming year, and then selects the least restrictive environment for that child to meet his or her goals and objectives.
How IDEA Applies to the Internet
The Internet is being used to a greater degree each year in preK-12 school systems. In fact it is being used in two distinct ways.
- First, teachers use it to provide students with a general education curriculum in areas like history, science, English, or math. Students may explore materials and information, conduct research, engage in activities, and even take tests online.
- Second, an education goal found across most states is that students will learn to use the Internet. Therefore this becomes a curriculum in its own right.
When portions of the general education curriculum are delivered in an online format, how will participation be possible for students with disabilities if they cannot access it directly due to inaccessible content? When these curricular sites are not accessible to children with disabilities, it is unlikely that they can be included in the general curriculum; thus a potential violation of the intent of IDEA. To combat this problem, one thing that schools and state offices of education should do is make an effort to control the accessibility of those products they purchase for students to use or experience online.
During the 2004 Reauthorization of IDEA (i.e., NCLB), two important elements were created in statute. One was the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS), which created a common set of technical guidelines so that curriculum developers could create accessible digital materials intended for print. The National Instructional Materials Accessibility Center (NIMAC) provided a mechanism for publishers and developers to register their accessible print materials to states for purchase or license. Both the NIMAS and NIMAC are operated by the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials (NCAEM). In 2020, NCAEM harmonized their terminology with the Marrakesh Treaty. Because of that, the definition of "print instructional materials" now includes digital instructional materials.
In 2020, the U.S. Department of Education issued a Notice of Interpretation, clarifying that the definition of "print instructional materials" in IDEA now includes digital instructional materials.