Schools must ensure that students with disabilities have the tools they need to communicate effectively, federal officials say. (Thinkstock)

Schools must ensure that students with disabilities have the tools they need to communicate effectively, federal officials say. (Thinkstock)

The Obama administration is reminding schools of their wide-ranging responsibilities to students with disabilities who struggle with speech and other communication difficulties.

In guidance issued Wednesday, federal officials said the nation’s public schools have obligations under three separate laws to “ensure that communication with students with hearing, vision and speech disabilities is as effective as communication with all other students.”

While requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act vary, schools must comply with all three laws to meet individual needs. That can mean providing assistance ranging from communication boards or Braille materials to sign-language interpreter services and portable speech-generating devices, according to documents sent jointly from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice.

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In cases where assistance is needed, schools should give “primary consideration to students and parents in determining which auxiliary aids and services are necessary to provide such effective communication,” the federal guidance said.

Nonetheless, schools are not required to provide anything more than is needed to “ensure effective communication,” officials indicated.

The guidance comes in response to a federal court decision last year in a case known as K.M. v. Tustin Unified School District which clarified schools’ obligations under the various laws when addressing students’ communication needs.

Denise Marshall at the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a special education advocacy organization, said her group welcomes the guidance to schools, but she worries that it is not clear enough and could lead to further hurdles for students.

“Our members have seen a lot of schools try to force a student to use a communication aid or service that is clearly not appropriate just to rule it out. This causes significant delays and makes many students feel like laboratory test subjects and robs them of their dignity,” Marshall said.