By Erin Vallely, ATI Advocacy Specialist

August 4, 2023



Anyone caring for students with disabilities and chronic illnesses knows the special education system can be difficult to navigate.  With school starting in New York soon, it’s important to know about the laws and vocabulary associated with special education that impact you and the students you care for.  

Important Education Laws to Know About 

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 established the creation of the first legally required plan to help disabled students access general education settings.  This law makes it illegal for schools to discriminate against students with disabilities and chronic illnesses.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990, or IDEA, is a special education law that ensures all disabled and chronically ill students have access to a free and appropriate public education.  The IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities and chronic illnesses.  Lastly, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, or ADA, also impacts education accessibility.  The ADA requires all schools and educational programs to make educational opportunities, extracurricular activities, and facilities open and accessible to all students regardless of their disabilities or chronic illnesses.

Special Education Vocabulary to Know 

The special education system can be very complicated, and you will likely encounter words or phrases you are not familiar with.  Here is a list of basic vocabulary that everyone should know before going to meet with the school.

504 Plan: A 504 plan is a plan that schools develop to give kids with diagnosed or suspected disabilities or chronic illnesses, the support they need to be successful in a general education setting.  They can cover any condition that limits daily activities in a major way.  504 Plans can make changes to the learning environment but cannot change the type of instruction the student receives or what they are expected to learn.

Individualized Education Program (IEP): The Individualized Education Program (IEP) documents a student’s eligibility for special education services and creates the plan to provide special education programs and services that are appropriate for the child’s specific needs. It contains specific information about a child and the education program designed to meet these needs.  

Accommodation: A tool and / or process that gives students with disabilities or chronic illnesses equal access to instruction and assessment. Accommodations are designed to level the playing field for students, and are grouped into the general categories of presentation, response, timing/scheduling and setting.  They might change how a student does something, but not what a student learns or what is expected of the student.

Modification: A modification changes the content and / or the instructional level of what students are typically expected to learn.  While accommodations are changes in formats or procedures, modifications change the difficulty level and/or quantity of the content being taught. Modifications are made for students with disabilities who are unable to comprehend and / or do all of the work a teacher expects.

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): Special education programs and related services that are provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge to the parent.  Schools are required to provide the services students need in order to be successful at school.

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): Special education services that provide a student with a disability or chronic illness with a Free Appropriate Public Education in the least restrictive environment. This means that your student must be educated alongside their non-disabled and non-ill peers as much as possible.  Placement of students in special classes, separate schools, or other removal from the general educational classroom occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that even with the use of services, supports and modifications, education cannot be satisfactorily achieved.

Paraprofessional / Aide: A paraprofessional, also frequently called an aide, provides assistance to students, either to an entire class or to an individual student.  They may help students with behavior support, instructional support, transportation support, social skills, navigation around school, and personal hygiene.  This support can be considered “restrictive” in some instances but is often less restrictive than other options. 

Related Services: Related services are services that are required to ensure a student with a disability receives meaningful educational benefits. Such services may include counseling, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech-language therapy, orientation and mobility services, and other support services that are specific to your child’s needs to help them be successful.

Extended School Year Services (ESY): Extended school year services are special education programs and services provided during July and August (summer break in New York state). They may be recommended for students with disabilities or chronic illnesses who require special education over the summer to prevent substantial regression.  Children with an IEP recommendation for ESY may either receive the same program and services in July - August as in September – June or they may receive less intense services in July – August.  If ESY services are recommended, the IEP will outline what programs and services will be provided in July and August.

Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA): When a student engages in problem behaviors that interferes with their learning or the learning of others, or that place the student or others at risk of harm or injury, a Functional Behavioral Assessment may be conducted. This assessment is a process that is used to identify the reasons for a behavior and the possible interventions to address it.  

Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP): A plan that is based on the results of a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) to address problem behavior. It includes the target behavior(s) and goal(s), positive behavioral interventions and strategies, any necessary accommodations or modifications, and how the plan will be monitored and updated as needed.  It is common to make adjustments every few months based on your student’s progress and changing goals.

Annual Review: After your child has received special education services, an IEP meeting is held at least once each year to review your child’s progress. This is called an "Annual Review". During the annual review the team will discuss your child's progress toward their goals, review the special education services provided, and determine services and goals for the following year.  After agreed on changes are made, you will get a new copy of the service plan.

Manifestation Determination Review (MDR): A Manifestation Determination Review (MDR) is a meeting between the caregiver and members of the school community. It happens when a student with a disability or chronic illness is facing a disciplinary change of placement. A disciplinary change of placement occurs if a student is removed from their current educational program due suspensions for more than 10 consecutive school days or for more than 10 cumulative school days in a school year because of a pattern of removals.  The MDR will include a discussion of the student's disability, the behavior that led to the removal, and whether the behavior was related to their disability or related to a failure to implement the student's IEP.

The special education system and regulations can be difficult to understand at first, but it is important for people to understand their rights and responsibilities.  You should never be afraid to question the schools' suggestions, and your concerns and suggestions should always be respected by your child’s special education team.

Get Involved!   

Although schools are required to provide you with information about your rights and the school's responsibilities, it is important to educate yourself about the system.  The more you understand, the better you and your student will be able to advocate for their needs.

  • Check out this website with hundreds of articles all about the special education system to find resources specific to you and your student’s needs at

If you, or someone you know, has questions about the special education system, is experiencing discrimination, or wants to learn more about their rights, please contact Erin Vallely at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  She can help answer your questions and work with you if you and the child you care for need education advocacy services.  Her services are free, and she’s here to ensure your child succeeds in the educational setting that is best for them.