The History of Special Education in the United States
Today, children with disabilities routinely attend the same public schools as children without disabilities. But this was not always the case.
The story of Special Education begins in the early part of the 20th Century. Parents formed advocacy groups to help bring the educational needs of children with disabilities to the public eye. These groups gained momentum mid-century. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy created the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation. The panel’s recommendations included federal aid to states. In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provided funding for primary education, and is seen by advocacy groups as expanding access to public education for children with disabilities.
Despite these two important events, by the 1970’s, only a relatively small number of children with disabilities were being educated in public schools. Both enacted in 1975, two federal laws would change this: The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The EHA establishes a right to public education for all children regardless of disability, while the IDEA requires schools provide individualized or special education for children with qualifying disabilities. Under the IDEA, states who accept public funds for education must provide special education to qualifying children with disabilities.
The IDEA sets forth specific guidelines regarding Free Appropriate Public Education. Among these is the idea that education must be tailored to meet the needs of the individual child with a disability. This education must be of benefit to the child and should prepare the child for further education (i.e., college) or to live and work independently. The IDEA also requires that education occur in the least restrictive environment and requires schools to take a child’s disability into account when enforcing discipline.
Although not all children with disabilities are covered by the IDEA and EHA, these two acts have been instrumental in ensuring a free public education to millions of children with disabilities each year since passage. Prior to these acts, parents of children with disabilities had few choices as to the education of their children. Today, these children receive their education along side children who do not have disabilities.
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