History of Special Education in the US

Until the passage of PL94-142 in 1975, American schools educated only one out of five children with disabilities. More than 1 million students were refused access to public schools and another 3.5 million received little or no effective instruction. Many states had laws that explicitly excluded children with certain types of disabilities, including children who were blind, deaf, and children labeled "emotionally disturbed" or "mentally retarded."

In the 1950s and 1960s, family associations began forming and advocating for the rights of children with disabilities. In response, the Federal government began to allocate funds to develop methods of working with children with disabilities and passed several pieces of legislation that supported developing and implementing programs and services to meet their needs and those of their families. Two laws provided training for professionals and teachers who worked with students with mental retardation ( PL 85-926 in 1958 and PL 86-158 in 1959). In 1961, the Teachers of the Deaf Act (PL 87-276) provided for training of teachers to work with the deaf or hard of hearing. In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (PL 89-10) and the State Schools Act (PL 89-313) granted funds to states to help educate children with disabilities. In 1968, the Handicapped Children’s Early Education Assistance Act of 1968 (PL 90-538) funded early childhood intervention for children with disabilities. Several landmark court decisions established the responsibility of states to educate children with disabilities (in particular, Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens v. Commonwealth (1971) and Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia (1972)).

Rehabilitation Act of 1973
Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act guaranteed civil rights for the disabled in the context of federally funded institutions or any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. It required accommodations in affected schools for the disabled including access to buildings and structures and improved integration into society. Act 504 applies to all people throughout their lifetimes, not just the span of 3-21 years. A person with a 504 plan does not have to have an educational disability. The spirit of 504 is to level the playing field for people with disabilities and is about access.
[edit] Education for All Handicapped Children's Act of 1975
Main article: Education for All Handicapped Children Act

In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) Public Law 94-142 established the right of children with disabilities to receive a free, appropriate public education and provided funds to enable state and local education agencies to comply with the new requirements. The act stated that its purpose was fourfold:

    * To assure that all children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education emphasizing special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs
    * To protect the rights of children with disabilities and their parents
    * To help state and local education agencies provide for the education of all children with disabilities
    * To assess and assure the effectiveness of efforts to educate all children with disabilities

In 1986 EHA was reauthorized as PL 99-457, additionally covering infants and toddlers below age 2 with disabilities, and providing for associated Individual Family Service Plans (IFSP), prepared documents to ensure individualized special service delivery to families of respective infants and toddlers.

Americans with Disabilities Act
Providing individuals with identified disabilities similar protections from discrimination as those granted by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) barred discrimination in employment (Title 1), public services and transportation (Title 2) public accommodations (Title 3), telecommunications (Title 4) and miscellaneous provisions (Title 5). It was a great step in normalizing the lives of the disabled. Title 3 prohibited disability based discrimination in any place of public accommodation with regard to full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations. Public accommodations included most places of education.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
The law regarding disability education underwent a change with the introduction of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Prior to that time, the statutory focus in EHA was to provide access to education for disabled students who had been marginalized in the public school system. Satisfied that the goal of "access" had been reached, in 1997 Congress enacted IDEA with the express purpose of addressing implementation problems resulting from "low expectations, and an insufficient focus on applying replicable research on proven methods of teaching and learning for children with disabilities." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(c)(4). The statute clearly stated its commitment to "our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(c)(1).

Arguably, passage of IDEA represented a significant shift in focus from the disability education system in place prior to 1997. IDEA added individualized transition plans (ITP) for transitioning individuals from secondary school to adult life or post secondary education. Special education coverage was extended to the categories of autism and traumatic brain injury (TBI). In 1997 IDEA was reauthorized as PL 105-17 and extended coverage to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), functional behavioral assessments and intervention plans were added, and the ITP's were integrated within IEP's. An additional re-authorization was made in 2004.

No Child Left Behind
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001 (ESEA) PL 107-110, more popularly known as the No Child Left Behind Act required accountability for the academic performance of all school children, including those with disabilities. It called for 100% proficiency in reading and math by the year 2012.

The Assistive Technology Act of 2004 (ATA) PL 108-364 provided support for school-to-work transition projects and created loan programs for the purchase of assistive technology (AT) devices.

The 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act reauthorization PL 108-446 changed learning disability identification procedures, required high qualification standards for special education teachers, stipulated that all students with disabilities participate in annual state or district testing or documented alternate assessments, and allowed in response to activities related to weapons, drugs or violence that a student could be placed in interim alternative educational setting.

Some student disability protections not covered by IDEA may be still covered under Section 504 or ADA due to a broader definitions of what constitutes a disability.