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A History of Educating Children with Disabilities in America

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

It is not often you see a young man with such a passion for inclusive education. It is my pleasure to introduce you to Miles Kredich, a teenager with a twin brother who has autism. Watch this short (8 minute) documentary that gives a history of special education and gives a great case for inclusive education.

Video Transcript

Look around America today. Our public schools are embracing diversity.

There are students of different ethnicities, different socioeconomic backgrounds, different religions, and different abilities.

Students with disabilities are being educated more effectively than ever before, and are being included in their schools and communities because of relatively recent legislation.

Even today's TV shows, such as Glee, are reflecting the culture of inclusion in our schools.

But it wasn't always this way, and we still have a ways to go.

How did we get to this point, and how can we progress?

This is Educate-able: A History of Educating Children with Disabilities in America.

Before the 1800's, children with developmental disabilities had no legal right to an education and were often kept at home, or were sent to institutions.

But in 1817, a man named William Gallaudet created the first special education school, and many more other schools followed.

While the school's claimed to educate, most of the children were removed from society and this actually added to the segregation in education.

In the mid 1900's professionals started to see that social interaction between children with disabilities and children without disabilities had a positive impact on education.

Even with these viewpoints, parents continued to send their children to mental institutions, because they believed they were the only places that offered the correct training for their child.

During the 1960's the Civil Rights Movement helped prompt the Disability Rights Movement, while people with disabilities fought for equal access to resources in their communities.

Along with these resources, was a Free Appropriate Public Education for all students with disabilities. The movement led to monumental legislation.

In 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA, was passed. IDEA required every child with a disability that affects his or her education, would have an Individualized Education Program or an IEP. The IEP is a document, created by a team that states how the child is going to be educated, how the student learns the most effective way, states short term and long term goals, and a plan for graduation.

The school administrator, the general education teacher, special education teacher, and an evaluator, are the people that are required to be involved in creating the IEP.

Many other people who have knowledge of the child can also be involved. A student's eligibility for receiving special education services has to be renewed every three years, and the IEP is required to be revisited every year.

IDEA also introduced the important concept of Least Restrictive Environment, or LRE. LRE means that students with disabilities must have the opportunity to be educated with their nondisabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate.

The IEP team first has to consider that the student will be educated in the regular education classroom with full accommodations, such as putting sticky-notes on the child's desk as reminders or creating audio tapes for tests.

Or modifications such as changing the difficulty of assignments, supports such as physical therapy, or a one-on-one aid for the student.

If the student is not able to be educated with accommodations, modifications, and a full range of supplementary supports and services, they are placed in a more restrictive environment such as a special education classroom, special school, or even their home.

Every state has at least one parent training and information center created to help parents of children with disabilities learn the IEP process, their child's rights, and their own rights by providing support and information such as workshops, meetings, and internet videos.

Here is a document showing how IEP teams should determine as child's Least Restrictive Environment created by Tennessee's Support and Training for Exceptional Parents (or STEP organization).

LRE required consideration of inclusion in schools for the first time.

Even with the passing of IDEA, some basic resources were still not available in schools. Much of our country's move towards lawful inclusion under IDEA is a result of parent advocacy.

For example, in 1980, Timothy vs Rochester School District ruling stated that no matter the severity of the child's disability, an appropriate educational program must be offered to that child.

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was ratified. ADA provided Americans with disabilities employment options and public transportation.

This was a civil rights law that among other things prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities.

Even with these new legislations, only seven percent of children with disabilities were included in the regular education classroom.

IDEA was reauthorized two times. Once in 1997, and again in 2004. Each time is was reauthorized, the range of educational resources became more extensive and further promoted inclusion of students with disabilities in the general education setting.

People with disabilities now enjoy greater educational opportunities than ever before, and data supporting the positive effects of inclusion will keep this movement towards inclusive education growing.

Many states and school districts are leading the way in educating children with disabilities inclusively, and are showing what is possible and beneficial to all students and their school communities.

Our generation has been fortunate to grow up being educated alongside peers of all abilities, and this perspective will no doubt lead us into an even more inclusive future.

Hi, my name is Miles Kredich, and I hope you like this documentary. This is my brother Ben. And hey, this is twin brother Miles!

This topic of disability rights in education is special to me, because my twin brother Ben has autism.

I have seen the amazing benefits of inclusion in schools and in the community, and I've also seen what it takes to advocate for successful inclusion through the IEP process.

I have been to Ben's IEP meetings throughout middle school and high school. And as a freshman, Ben is on track to earn a regular education diploma at West High School in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Ben is on the high school swim team and in regular education classes with support of an instructional assistant and highly modified curricular material.

My family has always promoted inclusion in our schools and has found a way to support Ben in activities such as sports, music, and art.

I think that Ben is an example of how inclusion can work to make education better for all students, and I am proud to be part of our country's movement towards inclusive education.


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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