How children with disabilities came to be accepted in public schools
When Alan joined my class in September, I knew he needed help.
So did I.
Alan had lived in an orphanage ever since he was an infant and faced many challenges: he was older than the other kids and did not want to play with them. He didn’t use words – although he could make sounds. He was very different from his classmates and stayed to himself.
But then, every afternoon he was a bundle of energy, imitating the barking of a dog and crawling on the floor around his classmates at circle time. He also had a passion for shredding my teaching materials.
I didn’t know what to do.
That was 1978. I was teaching half-day kindergarten classes in a New York school that year to 33 five-year-olds in the morning and to another 30 youngsters in the afternoon.
I had no assistant, and safety was my first priority. I referred Alan for an evaluation to see if he was eligible for special education services.
Luckily for Alan, three years earlier, President Gerald Ford had signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) of 1975 into law. Public schools were given three years to get ready for some big changes.
By the time I referred Alan, Public Law 94-142 (as the act was known then) had taken effect nationwide.
As we mark the 40th anniversary of the law, it is an important moment in which to reflect.
From my perspective as a teacher, school administrator and professor of special education – who has followed this nation’s journey toward equal educational opportunities – I believe this law enabled many young kids with disabilities, like Alan, to lead more productive lives.
What it was like in the 1970s
Back in the seventies, educating kids with special needs in regular schools was a new concept.
Before the law came in, 1.75 million children with disabilities were completely excluded from public schools. And of the three million children with disabilities who went to school, many did not receive an education that was appropriate to their needs. Most often they were taught in special classes or state-supported schools.
Children with mild visual or hearing problems, speech impairments or mild intellectual disabilities could spend at least some time in regular classes. But those who were totally deaf or had moderate intellectual difficulties were not allowed in regular classrooms.
They were sent to separate schools or institutions – even if they did not need to be in those settings.
Some states even had strict laws excluding children who were considered “crippled,” “feebleminded” or “emotionally disturbed” from public education, based only on their “handicaps.” It was not unusual for them to be institutionalized.
The general belief was that children with a disability could not learn. Parents who could afford to pay sent their kids to private schools that provided special services through nonprofit organizations such as the Easter Seals Association or The Arc that were set up by parents early on to advocate for their kids.
The education of these children became an issue of public concern in their home communities only if there was enough money. At the time, education for children with special needs was seen to be more of a matter of privilege and not a right.
What changed with a new law
Once the EAHCA came in, however, it made the right to education a reality for students with disabilities across the United States.
It helped kids receive an Individualized Education Program so they could be taught the skills they needed in class or on the playground.
In Alan’s case, his special education teacher assessed his strengths and weaknesses – he needed to learn to recognize letters and numbers and learn to play with others. She also experimented with different teaching approaches and kept data on what he could and couldn’t do so she could target his learning problems. In addition, he received services from the speech-language therapist.
I remember, thanks to these services, Alan made good progress that year.
As this was 1978 and kids with special needs were rarely taught in regular classrooms, Alan never returned to my kindergarten class. He was taught in a separate special education classroom.
How the law evolved
In 1990, Congress updated the title and language of the law. It came to be known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
A great deal of activism on behalf of people with disabilities led to this change. The term “handicapped” implied dependence. Its origins went back to medieval times, when the only source of income for many people with disabilities was begging with a cap in hand.
Putting the word “individuals” before the word “disabilities” in the title was also preferred as an example of “person-first” language. This implied that people were not to be defined by others only by their disability.
Several other changes were made as the law evolved: In 1986, it came to include services for children under six years old. In 1990, it incorporated services for older students to get help planning their transition to college, work and life in their communities. And in 1997, Congress reauthorized the law to increase accountability.
As a result, IDEA 1997 came to incorporate new goals – such as getting kids ready for school, improving academic achievement in reading and other subjects, increasing graduation rates, bringing in highly skilled teachers, making schools safer and building stronger partnerships with parents.
These changes meant that more kids could be taught in the regular classroom – they could access school activities and the same general curriculum as other students without disabilities.
Consequently, for the past 40 years, public schools in the US have been required to make a free, appropriate, public education available to all children with disabilities.
I imagine if Alan were in school today, he would be one of 6.4 million students in the US who receive IDEA services from birth to age 21. He would also likely be among the 95% of special education students taught in public schools who spend some part of their school day in regular classes.
I would also like to think that if Alan were born today, he would not be given up for adoption. His parents would learn to care for him with support from early intervention services for infants and toddlers.
He would be included in a local preschool program where he could learn to be with other kids and feel safe. That would help him get ready for his first day of kindergarten.
But he would also be facing some challenges.
In my experience, educating students with disabilities is complex. Too often, effective techniques and materials are not used in schools. And even when students are included in regular classes, they are not taught appropriately.
In 2004, changes were made in the law to overcome low expectations for these students. Today, the good news is that dropout rates for students with disabilities have decreased – 64% of special education students now graduate with a regular high school diploma.
But the sobering news is the reading and math performance of many students is well below proficiency.
The challenge is for teachers and school administrators to make sure students with disabilities in their schools are taught in ways that are proven by research to improve their learning.
Special education students need the extra services provided by IDEA to develop, learn and succeed. Without the extra interventions and personalized support, the performance of many is unlikely to improve. Unfortunately, this isn’t happening in enough schools.
The issue is, special and general education teachers need to work together for these students to make appropriate progress. They need to be sure they respond not only to their students’ academic needs but also to their social and personal needs. To do that, school administrators need to help their teachers build the will and the skills to work together.
I’ve been through this journey for 40 years. And I am celebrating the birth of IDEA today. For when I think about Alan, I recall the impact it made – on him and many others.