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A Brief History of Special Education

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

Students with disabilities have only had a legally protected right to attend public school since the passing of The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142) in 1975. Here is a look at some of the key legislation that set the stage for the special education system as we know it today.

(1975): The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) gave children with disabilities specific legal rights to an education. Until this time, many students with disabilities were not allowed to attend school at all. The act contained a provision stating that students with disabilities should be placed in least restrictive environment (LRE) in order to allow the maximum possible opportunity to interact with non-disabled peers. Separate schooling may only occur when the nature or severity of the disability is such that instructional goals cannot be achieved in the regular classroom. The law also contained a due process clause that guarantees an impartial hearing to resolve conflicts between the parents of disabled children and the school system.

In the 1970s and 1980s, due to strong parent advocacy, students with “mild disabilities” were mainstreamed with more frequency into regular classrooms (Causton & Tracy-Bronson, 2015).

(1990): The EHA was reformulated as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA elaborated on the inclusion of children with disabilities into regular classes and also focused on the rights of parents to be involved in the education decisions affecting their children. IDEA required that an Individualized Education Program (IEP) be designed with parental approval to meet the needs of every child with a disability.

(1990): After IDEA and decades of campaigning and lobbying, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. This ensured the equal treatment and equal access of people with disabilities to employment opportunities and to public accommodations. The ADA was intended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, services rendered by state and local governments, places of public accommodation, transportation, and telecommunications services.

(1997): IDEA was reauthorized in 1997. In addition to upholding the rights outlined in previous legislation. The act emphasized academic outcomes for students with disabilities. This involved raising expectations for students, supporting students who follow the general curriculum, supporting parents, and helping states determine appropriate outcomes. With the focus on outcomes, school-to-work transition planning gained new importance.

Inclusive education has become more accepted in the education community since 2000. The reauthorization of IDEA in 2004 Congress reiterated that special education and related services should be designed to meet students’ unique needs.” In addition, they stated that students with disabilities should have “access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom, to the maximum extent possible.”

The use of “scientific, research-based interventions,” known as Response to Intervention (RTI) also began because of the changes in the 2004 law. These interventions, which are started in general education before students are given special education services, are called “multitiered systems of support” (MTSS) in ESSA.

IDEA should have been reauthorized in 2009 but was delayed because of the changes to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), now the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). It remains to be seen if IDEA and ESSA can coexist in an era of deregulation, school vouchers, and local control. We can only hope that the gains we have made for students with disabilities will continue long into our nations future.



Tim Villegas is the Director of Communications for MCIE, Editor-in-Chief of Think Inclusive, and the host of the Think Inclusive Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealTimVegas.


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