Three major laws govern the education of special needs students.
First, is something referred to as IDEA. IDEA stands for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This is the federal (U.S. government) mandate which provides appropriate educational programs for children with disabilities. IDEA is the act primarily used by the Department of Education for establishing what criteria a student should meet to be classified as having a disability.
Two other federal laws also govern the education of students with disabilities, but are broader in that they are not education laws. The Americans with Disabilities act (ADA) and section 504 of the Rehabilitation act define disabilities in a broader sense. Since these acts apply to everyone, they can be used to ensure that schoolchildren have the same rights ensured under these laws as adults in the workfore do.
In addition to federal laws, many states have additional laws which may apply to special education students.