Occupational Therapy

Occupational Therapy Under IDEA

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part B and the Connecticut General Statutes sections 10-76a through 10-76dd provide for the provision of special education for children with disabilities ages 3 through 21 “who, by reason thereof, need special education and related services.” Special education means “specially designed instruction” that meets the unique needs of students with disabilities. In addition to instruction in the classroom, special education includes instruction at home, in a hospital, and in other institutions; physical education; speech pathology (if considered special education instruction); and vocational education. Special education and related services are part of a student’s individualized education program (IEP), which details the educational program tailored to meet the student’s specific educational needs.

According to case law, an IEP is not required to provide the maximum education possible but should confer an educational benefit. In 1997, Congress reauthorized amendments to IDEA which cover numerous areas, such as state and local educational agency role and responsibilities, eligibility criteria, student disciplinary situations, private/parochial/charter schools, parental involvement, IEP provisions, data collection, records, and grant funding.

What is occupational therapy?

Occupational Therapy (OT) is a related service for eligible students, ages 3 through 21, who require supportive services to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education.[2] This includes:

  • Improving, developing, or restoring functions impaired or lost through illness, injury, or deprivation;
  • Improving the ability to perform tasks for independent functioning when functions are impaired or lost; and
  • Preventing, through early intervention, initial or further impairment, or loss of function.[3]

What is the purpose of occupational therapy?

Occupational therapy’s purpose is usually to help students:

  • Acquire and express sensory-motor information;
  • Perform daily living activities required for school functioning and move through the school environment; and
  • Assume student functions, which include:
    • Campus/school mobility,
    • Participating on a regular and timely basis,
    • Mental storage of material,
    • Recording information,
    • Studying,
    • Using tools and supplies, and
    • Participating in activities throughout school settings.

School personnel commonly request occupational therapy support when students have difficulty with one or more of the following functions as related to educational participation:

  • Daily living activities (ADL)
  • Feeding and oral function
  • Play skills
  • Task organization and completion
  • Written communication skills and hand function
  • Sensory integration (processing)
  • Visual perception

Who is eligible for occupational therapy?

In order for students to receive occupational services under IDEA Part B, federal law requires that the students be eligible for special education and that the related service be necessary to assist the students with disabilities to benefit from special education. In this manner, occupational therapists serve in a supportive role, helping students participate in and benefit from special education. 

Eligibility covers children with disabilities in any of the following federal classifications who may have a need for occupational therapy as a related service:

  • Mental retardation
  • Hearing impairments, including deafness
  • Speech or language impairments
  • Visual impairments, including blindness
  • Serious emotional disturbance; orthopedic impairments
  • Autism
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Other health impairments
  • Specific learning disabilities
  • Deaf-blindness/multiple disabilities
  • Neurological impairment
  • Developmental delays (3-5 years)

Who refers my child for occupational therapy?

The local education authorities (LEA) may make referrals for occupational therapy services when students demonstrate educationally-related dysfunction in any of the following:

  • Performance areas of self-help or adaptive skills, work, and productive activities;
  • Play or leisure activities;
  • Performance components of sensorimotor, cognitive, and psychosocial development may affect the learning process.

Since referral procedures vary among school systems, therapists should become thoroughly familiar with the process in their assigned school(s). Many schools have an established referral protocol, which may include pre-referral, identification of problems(s), accepted strategies, and work samples. The teacher, school psychologist, physician, other related services personnel, community agency providers, or parents may initiate referrals in the educational setting. The best practice is that collaboration remains the foundation for all procedures. Referral information should include:

  • The screening (if done) and records;
  • Interviews with parents, school personnel, and related professionals; and
  • Work samples, where relevant.

Will I have to pay for occupational therapy services?

No. In accordance with every student’s fundamental right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE), special education and related services are provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge. Preschool, elementary, or secondary school education is provided in conformity with students’ IEPs. Services include:

  • Special education
  • Related services needed by students to benefit from special education means transportation and such developmental, corrective, and other related/supportive services including:
    • Speech pathology and audiology
    • Psychological services
    • Physical and occupational therapy
    • Recreation, including therapeutic recreation
    • Social work services
    • Counseling services
    • Medical services (diagnostic or evaluation only)
    • Parent training and counseling
    • Assistive technology devices and services
    • Rehabilitation counseling
    • School health services

Occupational therapy under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a broad civil rights law, which protects the rights of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education. Section 504 requires an accommodation plan for all students who meet the definition of disabled. General education is responsible for providing equal access to all programs operated by the public school to students with disabilities under the requirements of Section 504. Sometimes students with disabilities are not eligible for special education services, yet have difficulty participating in and benefiting from educational programs. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, students might be eligible for occupational therapy services as a reasonable accommodation to help them learn, care for themselves, perform manual tasks, walk, speak, and breathe. Under Section 504, students who are currently disabled cannot be denied or excluded from, educational services. Section 504 identifies individuals as disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, has a record of the impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment. Students with disabilities defined under 504 must have equal access to educational services as non-disabled students.[5]

Contact an Experienced Education Law Attorney

Our attorneys have years of experience representing education law clients in the states of New York and Connecticut. With offices located in New York City and Westport, we strive to provide large firm service while maintaining the small firm attention and accountability you deserve.  us today for assistance with your educational services questions. Call 212-682-5700 for our New York offices or 203-221-3100 for our Connecticut office.


[1] 34 C.F.R 300.16.
[2] 34 CFR 300.16(a).
[3] 300.16(5)(i)(ii)(iii).
[4] 34CFR 300.16 (a)(7).
[5] State of Connecticut, Department of Education, Guidelines for Occupational Therapy in Educational Settings (1999) http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/lib/sde/PDF/DEPS/Special/OTGuidelines.pdf.