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FAPE Defines Special Education

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.



In the not-so-distant past, students with physical, mental, or learning disabilities were barred from attending some public schools within the country. Some schools accepted them but segregated them from the rest of the student body. As a result, many of these students were not given access to the same curriculum, educational programs, and technology that their non-disabled peers enjoyed.

Something had to change. And, as a result, a curious acronym with possibly the most important edict in special education was added to national education law.

FAPE stands for "free and appropriate education." It was a term created under guidelines of "All Handicapped Children Act or 1975" (later to be known as the Individual with Disability Education Act or IDEA). It states that under IDEA, students with disabilities have a right to free and appropriate education. It sounds simple; however, in special education, nothing is what it appears.


FAPE is the central issue of IDEA. Without it, the other requirements of the law are irrelevant (Hallahan, 1999). The law states that students who are deemed eligible for services under IDEA are entitled to receive appropriate special education and related services that consist of specially designed instructions and services provided at public expense (Yell, 2006).

Before the days of IDEA and FAPE, "free and appropriate" education for children with disabilities was almost non-existent. Access to education for children with disabilities was limited in two major ways.

The definitions of FAPE for a student with disabilities are:

  • To be provided at public expense, under supervision and direction, and without charge;
  • To meet the standards of the State educational agency;
  • To include an appropriate preschool, elementary, or secondary school education in the state involved;

and to provide an individualized education program (IEP) (IDEA, 20 U.S.C. &1401 (a) (18)).

History Behind FAPE

Before the days of IDEA and FAPE, "free and appropriate" education for children with disabilities was almost non-existent. Access to education for children with disabilities was limited in two major ways.

First, many children with disabilities were excluded from public schools. Unless the parents had access to or funding for private education, these children experienced neglect or isolation in institutions or at home. It is estimated that only 20 percent of all children with disabilities were being educated before the 1970s. In part, districts mandated this. In other cases, the state laws banned certain children with disabilities from attending. Those with developmental delays, physical impairments, or mental illness - to name a few - were excluded from the classroom by state laws.

Students were once left to fend for themselves in the classroom

Students were once left to fend for themselves in the classroom

Second, before IDEA, more than 3 million students were often "left to fend for themselves in classrooms designed for the education of their non-disabled peers (Hallahan, 1999)". Accommodations or modifications (two extremely important tools in special education) to an individual student with disabilities didn't exist.

In fact, special education classifications and common terms such as Resource Special Program (RSP), Special Day Class (SDC), Specialized Academic Instruction (SAI), Community Based Instruction (CBI), and IEP didn't exist before this particular law. In a sense, IDEA and the goal of FAPE became the building block for what modern special education programs throughout the country are currently based upon.

The “Free” in FAPE

So how does FAPE work? Each part of FAPE has its own personal meaning. The "free" in FAPE, in terms of the law, means that the parent or guardian of a child with a disability cannot be charged for special services that the student requires; they must be provided by public expense (Hallahan, 1999).

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Still, school personnel may consider cost when making decisions about special education programs (Yell, 2006). In 1984, The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in the case, Clevenger v. Oak Ridge School Board that "cost considerations are only relevant when choosing between two residential options... the school district could choose the less expensive of the two placements."

The Importance of “Appropriate”

"Appropriate Education," refers to the type of education students with disabilities should receive. It states that they shall have an education that is designed to meet their individual needs. As a result, students with disabilities now have IEPS.

Members of an IEP team bring up FAPE in annual meetings with students and their parents. However, FAPE -in definition or used in an IEP meeting - is procedural rather than substantive (Yell, 2006). An IEP helps to ensure the appropriate education portion of FAPE because it is an individualized plan for the students, in terms of their abilities and/or limitations.

What is LRE?

The least restrictive environment (LRE) refers to the least restrictive or "normal" place in which the student has the maximum feasible opportunity to have contact with their non-disabled peers. It also states that they are only to be removed when their needs cannot be met satisfactorily in that environment with supplementary aid and/or services (Hallahan, 1999).

IDEA 97 - one of several updates made to the original IDEA - indicated the criteria for LRE is the general education curriculum. In order for LRE and FAPE to occur teachers and school officials need to design programs that will have meaningful access to the typical curriculum for non-disabled students to the extent possible (Hallahan, 1999).

FAPE is common language in special education. However, it is arguably the most important term found in IDEA.

In brief, a FAPE affects other areas of education for students. Related services are part of FAPE. This is to ensure that a student who may need extra help will get it. IDEA defines related services like transportation, DIS counseling, partnership with outside departments (Department of Rehabilitation or a regional center), occupational therapy, interpreting services, one-on-one assistance, social work services, school nurse services, orientation and mobility services, and medical services (except for diagnostic or evaluation purposes only). This is merely a fraction of what related services are.

FAPE is now common language in special education. However, it is arguably the most important term found in IDEA. It is a goal and a law. Additionally, it is what special education is all about. Educators – both special and general education -- cannot ignore the plight of students with special needs. FAPE ensures this.

FAPE diagram

FAPE diagram

Work Cited

1. Hallahan,David P. ; Kauffman, James M.; and Lloyd, John W. (1999): Introduction to Learning Disabilities, 2nd edition. Allen & Bacon, Needham Heights, MA.

2. Yell, Mitchell L. (2006): The Law and Special Education, 2nd edition. Pearson Publishing, New Jersey.

© 2018 Dean Traylor


Dean Traylor (author) from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story) on February 26, 2020:

Lindsey, to put it simply --- yes , especially if they have an IEP. Dyslexia is considered a specific learning disorder and part of the goal of special education is to ensure a student with this condition is given a free and appropriate education. This will include accommodations to help him/her in a general education setting or giving them learning centers, or specialized classes to help them with areas of academics they need the most.

Lindsey on February 26, 2020:

In some cases does children diagnosed with dyslexia qualify for FAPE?

Larry W Fish from Raleigh on April 18, 2018:

Dean, I am glad to see that the physical and mentally disabled are seen as real people and should be treated that way. Many of those can go on to become exceptional members of society. I personally know one that is disabled and is a motivational speaker. It is an honor to know him and I am sure there will be many others contributing remarkable things. A great read, Dean, thanks for sharing.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on April 18, 2018:

It is about time we take the steps not to stigmatize disabilities. The more the students interact with each other, the better they grow up as persons.

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