A Brief History of Special Education in the United States

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by All Star Staff

special education teacher with three special needs students
special education teacher with three special needs students

Special education came into existence almost exclusively within the last 50 years. Taking a moment to learn about special education history in the U.S. will help you understand where the families of your students are coming from and help give you a clearer picture of where the industry has been-and where it has yet to go.

If you are considering entering the field of special education, you are taking advantage of an opportunity not afforded to people in previous generations. Learn from special education history and take it where you think it should go.

Hard-Won Progress

With the abundance of special education resources and programs available today, it can be surprising to learn how recent most of our country’s advancement in special education has been.

But for nearly 200 years after the United States was established in 1776, little was done to advance the rights of its disabled students. In fact, over 4.5 million children were denied adequate schooling before legislation to ensure equal educational opportunities for special education children began in the early 1970s.* This was a dark period in special education history.

But once legislation began, a steady stream of mandates, laws and decisions presented special needs students with opportunities previously unheard of. Suddenly, the foundation of a quality, individualized education in an accepting, unrestricted environment made independent living an option.

These hard-won victories were a culmination of decades of advocacy and dedication that helped build the rich selection of special education resources in the United States today.

Grass Roots Beginnings

But special education history didn’t stop there. The first advocacy groups to fight for quality special education were made up of parents whose children were marginalized as far back as 1933.

The majority of these family associations began making waves in the 1950s when their lobbying encouraged the passage of laws that provided training for teachers who worked with deaf, hard-of-hearing or intellectually disabled students (historically called “mentally retarded”).**

In the 1960s, multiple laws were passed, granting funds for special education students.

The States’ Place in Special Education History

In the early 1970s, multiple landmark court decisions giving states the responsibility to provide special education resources and schooling to students in need of it. These decisions altered the entire landscape of special education history in our country.

Currently, state and local institutions provide 91 percent of special education funding, while federal funds take care of the remaining 9 percent when states meet federal criteria.

This balance allows for the varying special education programs you’ll find across the country, as well as the uniform regulations that hold states to certain standards and encourage excellence in teaching.

The 1970s: Foundational Years

The 1970s brought more significant improvement to the lives of special education students than any other decade in special education history. First, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 guaranteed civil rights to all disabled people and required accommodations for disabled students in schools.

Then, in 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) guaranteed and enforced the right of children with disabilities to receive a free, appropriate education.

With the dual purpose of providing unique educational opportunities suited to the needs of disabled students and delivering it in the “least restrictive environment” possible, this law is still the foundation of modern-day special education history in the U.S. today.

IDEA Revolutionizes the Industry

During its reauthorization in 1997, EHA underwent a number of substantial revisions and became known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA emphasized the use of individual education plans, or IEPs, for all special education students.

IDEA also initiated the use of individualized transition plans, or ITPs, to best prepare students for success in their adult lives.

The onset of IDEA brought about a widespread focus on providing the best-researched, most effective methods for special education teaching. Now, not only were students guaranteed an equal education, they were provided with viable schooling options and the individualized attention they needed. This was a very positive step in special education history.

IDEA took many of the aims represented in EHA and brought them to life by providing applicable standards and structure to its best intentions.

Special Education Teaching Today

In 2001 and 2004, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) provided further accountability to schools and added technology assistance and loan programs to help schools acquire needed special education resources.

IDEA is another act that was established in 1975 but has undergone revamping to modernize the act as the definition and diagnosis of learning disability changes. The Learning Disabilities Association (LDA) was instrumental in writing IDEA, and it has undergone several revisions since it began as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA). This law originated as a way to ensure that students with disabilities receive an appropriate public education.

IDEA is updated about every five years, with the latest iteration in 2004. The reason for the consistent updating is to give the LDA a chance to see how the law works in practice, and what is needed to make it more clear, efficient, and effective. In the past, schools were required to wait until a child fell behind grade level before being eligible for special education. With the release of the final regulations of IDEA 2004, school districts are no longer required to follow this model but are allowed to intervene more appropriately and find other ways to determine if a child needs help.

Now that the basic rights are set in place, advocacy groups similar to those first started in 1933 are forming to put forth legislation. These groups work toward a number of differing goals in regard to teaching methods, the recognition of certain disabilities and greater choice in schools.

Regardless of the direction these take, educators, lawmakers and advocacy groups continue to streamline disability classifications as the public becomes more aware of politically correct terminology.

If special education is your passion, get your teacher training and certification, and start making a difference today.

*Source: “Back to School on Civil Rights: Advancing the Federal Commitment to Leave No Child Behind,” by the National Council on Disability; January 25, 2000

**In 2008, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) began recommending the term, “intellectual disability” instead of “mental retardation.”

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