Special Education (IDEA) – A Short History

By Tim Weiss

For most of our nation’s history, schools were allowed to exclude and often did exclude certain children, especially those with disabilities. Since the 1960s, however, there has been a great deal of federal legislation that relates directly or indirectly to individuals with disabilities, particularly children and youth.

After World War II America turned its attention toward improvement of the condition of people with disabilities. Grassroots parent groups were the driving force behind the legislation that later developed. One of the first parent organizations was the American Association on Mental Deficiency who held their first annual convention in 1947. By the early 1950s a number of national parent groups had sprung up including the United Cerebral Palsy Association, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and the organization now known as The Arc. A major impact occurred when President John F. Kennedy, whose sister Rosemary had mental retardation, launched the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation. Through this groundswell of parent support, increasing rights were won for children with disabilities. The most significant progress has been in national legislation that allows children with disabilities to be educated in their own schools, rather than being sent to institutions or ignored altogether.

IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, mandates that eligible children with disabilities have available to them special education and related services designed to address their unique educational needs. The IDEA, and most especially the provision of special education, has its roots in the past. The laws from which the present-day IDEA started in 1965 with educational grant programs that targeted children with disabilities. By 1968 federal funding was made available to schools for education of students with disabilities as “discretionary” programs.

In 1974 Congress enacted the first laws mentioning appropriate education for children with disabilities and giving parents the right to examine records kept in the student’s personal file. This came close to being special education as we know it today, but it wasn’t until 1975 that the real special education law, later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, was approved.

P. L. 94-142, The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975.
Mandated a free appropriate public education for all children with disabilities, ensured due process rights, and mandated IEPs (Individual Education Programs) and LRE (Least Restrictive Environment). As such, it is the core of federal funding for special education. This law was passed in 1975 and went into effect in October of 1977 when the regulations were finalized. State parent training and information centers were authorized under the 1983 amendments (PL 98-199). Services for preschoolers and early intervention services for infants was added as Part H in 1986 (PL 99-457). In 1990 the law was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (PL 101-476). This amendment also mandated transition services, defined assistive technology and added autism and traumatic brain injury to the eligibility list. The most recent amendments are included in the 1997 reauthorization (PL 105-17). This amendment made significant changes to the discipline sections and calls for positive behavior intervention to be used when students with disabilities exhibit behavior problems.

“P. L.” stands for Public Law. The first set of numbers stands for the session of Congress during which the law was passed. The second set of numbers identifies what number the law was in the sequence of passage during that session. Thus, P. L. 94-142 was the 142nd public law passed, and signed by the President, during the 94th session of Congress.”

11/22/00 PARENTS, Inc. 4743 E Northern Lights Blvd, Anchorage, AK 99508

[email protected]

Next: Special Education Parent Advisory Councils