Navigating Special Education: A Comprehensive Online Training for Families, Educators, and Advocates

The services and supports and the quality of education available to students with disabilities has continuously improved since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) first required schools to educate all students with disabilities back in 1975. However, the process of identifying which students should receive special education services and what services they should receive can be complicated, for both schools and families. The Arc@School’s new, online Advocacy Curriculum provides parents, educators, and non-attorney advocates the basic information they need to navigate the special education system.

What Is Special Education Advocacy and Why Do We Need It?

The IDEA requires schools to provide students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) through an individualized education program (IEP).

FAPE means students with disabilities must receive all of the specialized supports and services that they need to benefit from their education, at no cost to them or their family. LRE means students with disabilities must learn in the same classes and same schools that they would attend if they did not have a disability, as much as possible. Finally, an IEP is a document created annually that describes what the student already knows, what the student will learn in one year, and what services and supports the school will provide to help the student reach his or her educational goals.

Young students sitting at wooden desk in classroom; teacher helping boy in wheelchair

The process for creating the IEP is meant to be one of collaboration between a student’s parents, the student once he or she reaches age 16, teachers, service providers, and other school staff who know the student best. However, this collaborative process can break down due to disagreement between parents and school staff regarding the student’s plan. The IDEA builds in a system of accountability where students and their parents have certain rights and can take certain actions when they do not feel that the school is meeting the student’s needs appropriately. Students and parents often struggle to advocate on their own for appropriate educational services, so some seek to educate themselves so that they can advocate for services on their own, and some seek help from a special education advocate to obtain the services they feel the student needs.

What The Arc is Doing to Help

Since its founding in 1950, The Arc has advocated for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) to have access to educational supports and services. A lawsuit brought by a chapter of The Arc was a critical factor in the passage of the IDEA. Many chapters of The Arc continue to provide lay special education advocacy for students with IDD and their families. In 2016, The Arc created The Arc@School to support chapters of The Arc, families, and educators in ensuring students with IDD receive the services and supports they need at school.

To help families, educators, and advocates for all students with disabilities better understand how the collaborative process should work, and how they can better work together to meet student’s needs, The Arc@School launched an online curriculum in 2019 that provides basic information on navigating the special education system at an affordable cost for users. The Arc@School’s Advocacy Curriculum includes eight online, self-paced modules on the legal foundation of the special education system, early intervention services, individualized education programs (IEPs), procedural safeguards, Section 504, educational records, and more. Users who complete all 8 modules will receive a certificate of completion.

A successful IEP is the foundation for students with disabilities to successfully transition to postsecondary education, employment, and independent living. The Arc@School’s Advocacy Curriculum can help families, educators, and advocates support students on their path to success!

Opening Up the Online World to People With Disabilities: Employment Spotlight

Digital technology is revolutionizing our day-to-day lives. It is rapidly expanding access to information, tools, and entertainment that helps us connect with the world and each other. It helps us dream bigger and achieve more. But with rapid change comes barriers to understanding and access. This is especially true for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), who may need extra support to master and use technological tools.

As part of The Arc’s extensive and long-standing partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal, 16 chapters across the county were selected to serve as Tech Coaching Centers to expand technology access and understanding for the disability community. Each coaching session is tailored to the participants’ unique needs and goals for navigating the online world. Through one-on-one sessions with their coach, each person has the opportunity to grow their skills and confidence. Read about one of them below.

The Power of Programming

Daniel hard at work coding

Daniel came to the Tech Coaching Center at The Arc of Carroll County in Maryland as a 14-year-old with a specific goal: he wanted to learn how to master JavaScript to become a web developer. His tech coach from the chapter, Jeremy, saw Daniel’s passion and created a multi-session plan to help him reach his goal. During these sessions, they practiced using code to create individual shapes and fill them in with different colors and textures.

Daniel has autism, ADD, and ADHD, which can present challenges in social interactions and typical learning environments. But when it came to coding, Daniel was an exceptionally driven and fast learner —quickly surpassing what his coach was even able to teach him!

“I found the class helpful in that it moved at the pace each student needed,” Daniel said.

Jeremy can attest to the benefit of the coaching too. “Daniel felt accomplished and proud of his design,” Jeremy said at the end of the coaching sessions. “He was put in a lot of detail and effort into his coding and it showed.” 

The results of Daniel’s efforts!

Without digital skills, people with disabilities—who already face numerous barriers to gainful and competitive employment—lose out on so much. With the right supports, they’re able to hone and present cutting-edge skills like coding to employers, and secure paying jobs in their communities…just like anyone else. At our Tech Coaching Centers, participants can build and refine the skills that will make the difference for THEM as they enter the workforce, including how to network, create and submit resumes, and find good job openings.

Since finishing at the coaching center, Daniel is currently taking two college level classes along with two high school classes. He intends to take two more college classes in the spring semester and apply for a waiver to graduate after 11th grade. Because he already skipped a grade in elementary school, Daniel will be 15 when he graduates! He’d like to major in video game design in college and eventually work in programming after school.

His unflappable motivation, coupled with his lessons at the Tech Coaching center, have given him the opportunity he may not have otherwise had to sharpen an invaluable skill that will make him a standout candidate to employers. Daniel is just one example of what we at The Arc and Comcast already know: when people with disabilities have the opportunity to learn and develop skills, they can participate in these spaces just like everyone else!

Visit to see all the ways we are working to increase digital literacy in communities across the country.

Tech Coaching Centers and more made possible by:

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Connecting Passionate Volunteers to Meaningful Causes: Addressing Food Insecurity in NYC

By Andrew Pfadt-Trilling, Vivian Murray, and Joyce Minault (AHRC NYC)

New York City is a city of contrasts. It is the financial capital of the world while 1.4 million residents rely on emergency food programs. A place where luxury condominiums are built on the same block as people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

Last year, AHRC NYC was a recipient of a grant through the The Arc of the United States and the Corporation for National and Community Service to organize its first MLK Day of Service project to combat hunger and food insecurity. We saw this as a chance to look at neighborhoods where there is a real need, but also where there are passionate self-advocates and staff who want to be more connected and make an impact in their communities. We identified three neighborhoods (Crown Heights & Bushwick in Brooklyn; Lower East Side in Manhattan) and formed planning teams of staff and self-advocates that lived or worked in that neighborhood and asked: what if we planned a project that fought food insecurity, brought neighbors together, and strengthened community ties? Here is the story of how the Crown Heights team, B’lynx (Brooklyn Links Up) responded to that challenge.

B’lynx is a diverse team of people with and without intellectual/developmental disabilities, committed to enriching the Crown Heights community through innovation, passion, and fun. Since 2014, B’lynx has participated in community-based service projects and volunteer events with other local organizations.

The MLK Day of Service grant gave B’lynx the chance to develop as community organizers and take the lead in planning an initiative to bring people and organizations together to make a difference in Crown Heights. The team was excited to take on this role and when it came time to mobilize, self-advocates and staff began to hit the streets canvasing, recruiting volunteers, and spreading the word.

Recognizing that not everyone would be interested or comfortable doing the neighborhood outreach, the team made sure there were other ways for everyone to get involved and make an impact. Artists decorated boxes that were used for our city-wide food drives and distributed them to local businesses. Others created promotional materials such as flyers and bookmarks to raise awareness and recruit volunteers that were distributed to local libraries, cafes, and community centers. It truly takes a village to make something like this possible!

Volunteers organize food for distribution

The hard work of B’lynx paid off. On January 21st, 2019 over 50 volunteers came out in the harsh weather to help those in need, distributing over 500 pounds of food collected through the drive. They also provided hot meals to dozens of households through Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, a nonprofit organization that combats hunger and food waste by delivering excess food from restaurants to those in need. 

On top of the food-related volunteer activities of the day, B’lynx made sure the event also provided a space to showcase community partners and other opportunities to give back! Local organizations, such as community gardens and health centers, were present to share resources. There were arts and crafts tables for kids, healthy eating demos for all ages, and information of other volunteer opportunities in the neighborhood.

The MLK Day of Service has strengthened B’lynx even more and deepened their relationships in the Crown Heights community. This past summer they took an active role in neighborhood block parties, hosting arts activities for local children. B’lynx and the other change teams at AHRC NYC are already busy planning and looking forward to the upcoming 2020 MLK Day of Service, with the hope to help even more people!

two men, a patient and a doctor, seated and talking

Let’s Talk About Sexual Violence Against Men With Disabilities

Men with disabilities are twice as likely as those without disabilities to experience sexual violence. Yet few people know just how common it is, including health care professionals.

The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability® and the Board Resource Center recognize that health care professionals are in a front line position to educate patients with disabilities about sexual violence and how to report it. The project is releasing new training videos and other valuable online resources to give doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals the practical tools they need to have simple, direct, and honest conversations about sexual violence with male patients who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Health care professionals generally have little or no experience talking about sexual violence with this population. And men with intellectual and developmental disabilities may not know if they are victims of sexual violence, how to talk about it to their doctor, how to report it to authorities, or how to access healing services like counseling.

Talk About Sexual Violence provides tools that build the capacity of health care professionals to talk about this issue with greater confidence and lays the groundwork needed to empower patients with disabilities to talk openly about sexual violence, decreasing the likelihood of future violence.

As part of the second phase of the Talk About Sexual Violence project, The Arc and the Board Resource Center are proud to present:

“Survivors need to talk things out. We need a safe place to tell things and be heard. Listen to us, hear us, believe us. Let us talk about it as long as we need to. Let us be brave with you. We are getting out the pain, one conversation at a time.” – James Meadours, National Peer Advocate & Survivor

Students smile for the camera while sitting at a desk

Spotlight: Inclusion From the Start With The Arc Montgomery County

Photo: Ann Maas Photography

The Arc Montgomery County Karasik Family, Infant & Child Care Center, affectionately known as KFICCC, is a family-centered child care program. In every classroom, typically-developing children, children with developmental disabilities, and children with special health care needs play and learn together. The program has been a smash hit in the community, due in no small part to the thoughtful planning and implementation led by CEO Chrissy Shawver.

By modeling and teaching inclusion from the start, The Arc Montgomery County is ensuring that the next generation knows the value of inclusion and spreads love and acceptance in whatever path they take. In case you missed their presentation at this year’s National Convention, learn more about how they’ve built such a successful program below!

How did the program start?

The current KFICCC program was originally two separate programs. Karasik Child Care Center was for children ages 2-10 years old with and without disabilities. It was named after Monroe and Joan Karasik, very strong advocates for people with disabilities. Family, Infant & Child Care Center was for children ages 6 weeks to 5 years old who were medically-fragile, or who had complex medical conditions.   

In 2011, these programs merged, becoming KFICCC (Karasik Family, Infant & Child Care Center). KFICCC is the only fully-inclusive child care center in Maryland, where children with and without disabilities and special health care needs play, grow, learn and explore together in all classrooms. Approximately one-third of the children enrolled have identified disabilities; the remaining two-thirds are typically-developing.

What is your training and onboarding process like for new staff?

All KFICCC teachers have college degrees and all other KFICCC staff must hold a 90-hour child care certificate geared toward the ages of the children with whom they work. The Arc provides a comprehensive on-boarding and training process, which includes CPR, first aid, Maryland State Department of Education trainings, and other trainings specific to working with people who have disabilities. 

The most important quality for KFICCC staff is a really strong background in early childhood education. The child is a child first; any disability is simply part of the child. If you understand child development, you can work with all children by simply getting to know them and being willing to make accommodations to meet their individual learning styles and needs.

What about new children? How do you ensure the transition into the program is smooth and that everyone is set up to succeed?

KFICCC offers a seamless delivery of services, including therapies, special education, pre-kindergarten, and on-site nursing support. It’s all about coordination of care and giving parents an integrated support team.

New children come with their parents to meet with the staff and tour the building. During this visit, the child spends time in the identified classroom. Once a commitment is made, the child attends for his/her first week, spending progressively longer periods in the classroom. 

If the child has an IEP or IFSP, the staff will meet with the child’s team to learn how to best meet the child’s needs in the classroom. If the family is not yet linked to services, staff may recommend them to Child Find or Montgomery County Infants & Toddlers Program.

What should chapters who are trying to implement a similar program in their community know?

Operating KFICCC is expensive, primarily because child-staff ratios must be higher than what is required by licensing. Community partnerships are essential for success.  Staff must believe in inclusion and understand the benefits of having children with and without disabilities in the same classroom. When done right, it should be hard to tell who has a disability and who doesn’t—the program should feel very natural.

What has been the most challenging part of building the program, and how did you overcome it?

Adequate funding was and continues to be a challenge, especially when trying to keep the cost of child care affordable for families with lots of other financial pressures. It’s key to have someone who can write grants and connect with other funding sources because the program cannot run on tuition alone.

Another big challenge was breaking down barriers. Parents had many misconceptions about their typically-developing children “catching” disabilities or being held back because the attention was directed to children with special needs. The only way to overcome that was to demonstrate that it was untrue. Today, KFICCC’s greatest advocates are children without disabilities, because they just see their friends—not the disability.

Students pose for a photo wearing orange shirts
Photo: The Arc Montgomery County
The Arc@Work logo

The Arc Partners With Advance Auto Parts for Hiring Initiative for People With Disabilities

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), The Arc is pleased to announce that it has partnered with Advance Auto Parts on a pilot program to create meaningful job opportunities for people with disabilities at Advance’s Distribution Centers. The program’s first pilot site is at Advance’s Distribution Center in Denver. The plan is to expand the pilot program to include Distribution Centers in other locations in the coming months.

Spearheaded by Advance’s “Different Abilities” Employee network and The Arc@Work, the project aims to build upon Advance’s current disability-inclusion initiatives and offers competitive, dynamic, and meaningful job opportunities to individuals with disabilities throughout Advance. This year’s theme for National Disability Employment Awareness Month is “The Right Talent, Right Now,” which calls upon employers around the country to address the persistent gaps in employment between people with and without disabilities. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the national unemployment rate for people with disabilities is twice that of people without disabilities (7.2% vs. 3.6%), a gap that has remained static for years. Advance and The Arc@Work are working together to not only narrow this gap, but also support Advance in realizing the value of hiring employees with disabilities.

“The Arc@Work is thrilled to kick-off this great initiative with Advance,” said Jonathan Lucus, Senior Director of Workforce Strategy at The Arc. “People with disabilities are proven to be reliable, loyal, and productive employees, but employment rates for these individuals remain critically low compared to those for jobseekers without disabilities. Research shows that hiring people with disabilities gives a competitive edge and is better for business. This partnership gives jobseekers with disabilities a chance to realize their potential and Advance an opportunity to discover how much hiring the individuals we serve will positively impact their business.”

This pilot program launched in Denver and will move to other markets in the coming months. For the project, The Arc@Work and Advance are working with disability services agencies to identify, train, and hire motivated and qualified job seekers with disabilities. The Arc@Work is also providing disability awareness training and accessibility consultations to enhance the Distribution Center’s ongoing disability inclusion efforts. The main objective of the project is to create a sustainable and scalable methodology for hiring people with disabilities that can be replicated at other Advance Auto Parts distribution centers and stores in Colorado and around the country. For questions on the project or on how to get involved, contact The Arc@Work.

Graphic commemorating National Disability Employment Awareness Month that says "The Right Talent, Right Now"

The Arc Commemorates National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Each October, The Arc joins the national disability community and public and private sector employers in celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). The campaign sheds light on critical issues in disability employment and promotes best practices in hiring employees with disabilities and creating inclusive workplaces.

This year’s theme “The Right Talent, Right Now” recognizes the contributions of people with disabilities to the workforce, and challenges employers looking to hire leading creative minds and top-tier talent to consider the disability community, one of the largest and least utilized labor markets. According to the US Department of Labor, the national unemployment rate for people with disabilities is roughly twice that of people without disabilities (7.2% vs. 3.6%), a gap which has remained static for years. Paradoxically, research shows hiring people with disabilities can significantly bolster productivity, boost creative thinking and problem-solving, and positively impact the bottom line.

In order to narrow this gap, The Arc@Work — The Arc’s national employment program — partners with employers nationwide to create meaningful and inclusive employment opportunities for people with disabilities. To date, they have placed over 1,000 individuals in gainful and competitive jobs in the community. The Arc@Work leads trainings and corporate education events to promote greater understanding of disability issues, enhance workplace inclusion and accessibility, and to share the positive outcomes of hiring people of different abilities.

“The most important element to an employer’s success at hiring people with disabilities is understanding the value and significance to their workforce,” said Jonathan Lucus, Senior Director of Workforce Initiatives at The Arc. “We work with our clients to look at the whole picture and realize that hiring jobseekers with disabilities isn’t just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. We are celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month by spreading this message far and wide so that jobseekers with disabilities in communities across the country can get a fair shot at meaningful employment.”

Headshot of smiling woman with red hair in front of flowers and bushes

The Power of Belonging: A Community Comes Together

By Rachel Baker

R. Baker

Our community of Midland, Michigan, is a community that works hard to create inclusive opportunities for everyone. This past January, The Arc of Midland received a grant to organize and execute our first MLK Day of Service project. With the help of over 175 volunteers, we packaged and delivered food to over 1,000 people on one of the coldest days of the year.

The 175+ volunteers braved the cold to help direct traffic and deliver food. One man, Tom, came to receive food and ended up volunteering the entire day!

“I had no intentions of staying to help, but once I saw everyone working together to help people like me, I had to stay and be a part of giving back to the community that was giving to me.”

The Arc of Midland is lucky to be widely supported by many businesses, clubs, and organizations in our community that pitched in on this effort. The Great Lakes Loons (a local Minor League Baseball team) played host to the chapter’s Day of Service event. Not only does the team provide a safe, accessible, and welcoming environment for everyone to enjoy, but they also employ many people with disabilities throughout the year.

Another crucial partner was Hidden Harvest. Since 2016, we have partnered together through a variety of programs and projects—including a free pantry stocked weekly and supporting the community together when a fire ravaged an apartment complex where many people with disabilities and seniors lived. During this year’s MLK Day event, they provided food assistance, transportation, volunteers, and logistics for packaging of the food.

The Arc of Midland’s MLK Day work brought thousands of people together in service to build a stronger community. Together, every partnering organization, volunteer, and person receiving assistance honored Martin Luther King Jr. and his vision of belonging. 

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A volunteer in a tie dye shirt holds a paper bag of food donations

Get Into Inclusive Volunteering: Apply for a 2020 MLK Day of Service Grant

Inclusive volunteering is great for people and communities. When people give back together, they build friendships, practice their civic duty, learn skills they can use in the future, and help people in need.

But inclusive volunteering is not just a great idea for people—inclusive volunteering is a win for organizations. By developing inclusive volunteer activities, organizations show their dedication not just to their community, but also to supporting genuine inclusion for all members of their community, regardless of background or ability.This year, The Arc is once again partnering with the Corporation for National and Community Service to offer $5,000 and $10,000 grants to nonprofit community organizations to develop service projects that commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Projects must be designed for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) to volunteer alongside people without disabilities and should focus on providing food assistance to people in need in the community.

Over the past five years, The Arc has helped organizations across the country implement inclusive volunteering projects. They’ve seen firsthand the value of inclusive volunteering for the organization, with activities leading to new community partnerships and increased ability to reach new groups and service areas.

Is your organization ready to join them? Consider applying for a 2020 grant today!

Events must take place on MLK Day of Service in January 2020 and may continue through August 31, 2020.

Grantees will:

  • Partner with a service club to recruit volunteers with and without disabilities from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to participate in the project
  • Work with hunger-focused groups (e.g., community food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens) to deliver emergency food aid to people in need
  • Provide food aid on the MLK Day of Service and continue through the end of the grant (May 31, 2020)
  • Raise $31,000 ($10,00 grant) or $15,500 ($5,000 grant) in in-kind or cash matching funds to support the project

The application deadline is October 10 at 11:59 p.m. ET.

Request for Proposal (Word) | Request for Proposal (PDF)

Questions? Contact Jennifer Alexander at

A woman faces away towards a window, sitting in a chair with sad body language.

A Call to Action: We Must Do Better for People With IDD and Mental Health Needs

By Jennifer Alexander and Katy Schmid

Up to 40% of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) experience co-occurring mental illness. As a former direct care worker and special educator, we both had seen firsthand many issues that people with IDD and mental health needs faced in our work. Even still, we were unprepared for the level of need our journey revealed.

Through grants with partners Boston UniversitySelf Advocates Becoming Empowered, and the Family Support Research and Training Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, we met with people with IDD and mental health needs, families, and disability, education, and mental health professionals.

In meetings around the country and through a nationwide survey, we heard people share stories, challenges, and tears.

Here are some of the heartbreaking stories that we heard (you can find more takeaways and trends in this brief). They serve as a call to action that we can—and must—do better and work together to make the world better for people with IDD and mental health needs and their families.

“People think that we are bad people, that our family members are bad people.”

People with IDD and mental health needs and their families often felt that people did not understand them or were judging them when they would talk to others in the community. They felt that others may not believe or value them when they shared about their life. They also felt that they would be judged for any crises or situations that may occur. Even when they would go to mental health or IDD support groups, they felt other members did not understand what they were feeling or going through. People with IDD and mental health needs and their families reported feeling lonely and isolated, with very few people to rely on for social or emotional support.

“I went to one therapist and I talked to them about all of the anger that I had…Instead of supporting me…he attacked me.”

Disability, mental health, and education professionals frequently lack training or knowledge around IDD and mental health needs. Professionals may know how to support people with either IDD or mental health needs, but often do not know how to support people with both concerns. Many with IDD and mental health needs feel like they do not get adequate support from professionals because they do not know promising practices or how to tailor services. People with IDD and mental health needs and their families also feel that professionals may also set unrealistic goals or targets for families because they don’t understand what a family’s real life is like each day. Several participants also expressed that professionals will refuse to provide services to a person because of their dual diagnosis.

“We don’t have the services and support we need. We are waiting for the next crisis to occur.”

People with IDD and mental health needs often end up in a cycle of hospitalization, a return to home, and re-hospitalization. This may occur for several reasons: they may have experienced additional trauma in the hospital, they did not get the right support in the hospital, or there may be no step-down supports available and accessible to people with IDD and mental health needs after hospitalization. Many families reported that they often feel that they are in a continual crisis cycle and that they have no way to escape this pattern because of a lack of effective supports.

“Instead of helping us, the systems fight each other about who will pay.”

Both the disability and mental health systems are extremely complicated to work with and navigate. People with IDD and mental health needs and their families often struggle to identify resources or services in each system, to determine whether they are eligible for services, and to understand whether insurance will pay for the services a person and family need.

This is made more complicated by the way these systems determine who will pay for the services. The disability and mental health systems do not often talk with each other to determine eligibility and payment. Frequently, the family feels caught in the debate about which system will pay for services. The result: long wait times to receive services and having to pay out of pocket.

We Must do Better: A Call to Action

In addition to the challenges that were shared during our sessions, people with IDD and mental health needs, their families, and professionals also shared their expertise with us on what our society do to better support them. They identified the following activities:

  • Develop trainings—most notably a nationwide, replicable training around IDD and mental health for disability, education, and mental health professionals.
  • Support systems change activities that improve navigation and communication between the IDD and mental health systems.
  • Support research to further develop evidence-based mental health treatments for this population.
  • Support the development of programs to improve access to quality mental health care (regardless of insurance status).
  • Develop and improve access to support groups for people with IDD and mental health needs and their families to help them avoid feelings of isolation and loneliness.
  • Create public awareness campaigns to counteract stigma and misconceptions around IDD and mental health needs.


This summer, The Arc held focus groups in Florida, Indiana, and Maryland with professionals in the disability, education, and mental health fields. These focus groups lead us to develop further recommendations around this national training. We plan to release an updated brief this fall with these recommendations.

We also hope to continue to work around the country with the incredible people, families, professionals, research groups, and training centers that are dedicated to advancing the effort to support these families. Together, we can work together to help the people with IDD and mental health needs and their families nationwide.