Jamie Lynne Thomas
38 Campbell L. Rev. 73 (2016)
ABSTRACT. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) strives to provide children with disabilities equal access to free appropriate public education in order to prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. The determination that a child qualifies as a “child with a disability” under the IDEA is a pivotal one in the child’s life and can drastically impact his/her future. Once found eligible, the child gains access to the spectrum of resources, safeguards, and benefits that the IDEA guarantees. The contours of the key that opens that door should be well-defined and clear. The IDEA standards for eligibility, however, are not. Specifically, one of the statutory requirements for eligibility is that the child must have an enumerated disability that adversely affects his/her educational performance. The terms “adversely affect” and “educational performance” are not specifically defined anywhere in the IDEA or the federal regulations. As a result, authorities are divided regarding what qualifies as educational performance and how adverse an effect must be in order to satisfy this requirement. The resulting inconsistencies have proven problematic. Narrow constructions of these terms by decision-makers and state agencies frustrate the inclusive purpose and mission of the IDEA.
This Comment calls for clarity and consistency in these terms to the extent appropriate. While a nationally consistent definition of the term “educational performance” is not appropriate since formulation and execution of educational policy has historically been left to state and local authorities, this Comment argues that the IDEA establishes the baseline that “educational” at least includes more than just academics. Beyond that, the specifics should be determined by each state’s curriculum and educational policy. With respect to “adversely affect,” this Comment urges that an inclusive federal definition be adopted that comports with the purpose and goals of the IDEA.