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There was a time when a child with disabilities was not entitled to a free and appropriate education. Thankfully, the approval of laws designed to level the playing field for children with special needs are helping young children learn, achieve and meet their goals inside, and outside, of the classroom.
Fifty years ago, people with disabilities enjoyed few rights. Children that had physical or developmental impairments were not entitled to a free, equal education enjoyed by their peers because special education laws where they existed were decidedly lax. People who used a wheelchair as their primary mode of mobility were at the whim of others when it came time to enter, or exit, public facilities. During less enlightened times, having a disability meant it would be unlikely that a person who’s physical capabilities differed from the norm would have a career.
Today, the world is a different place, not only for people with disabilities, but also for their family members and friends. Of course, there is always room for improvement; there are still far too many people that have disabilities that are isolated needlessly, or who are struggling financially because of a lack of viable job opportunities.
But the progress that has been made which was won in no small part because of the efforts of people with disabilities, advocates, lawmakers and educators, is because of the tremendous number of laws that have aimed to level the playing field between people with special needs and their able-bodied counterparts.
Because of these laws, a child with a disability is now entitled to a meaningful education as a matter of law. That same child now receives federally-funded job training and transition services. And public places, which are paid for by all of us, can now be utilized by all of us.
Key pieces of legislation that helped to shape special education as we know it today includes:
- Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965
- Rehabilitation Act of 1973
- Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974
- Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975
- McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987
- Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990
- Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
- Government Results and Performance Act of 1993
- No Child Left Behind Act of 2001
- Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007
- American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
These are detailed below.
Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or EASA, was one of the first broad-ranging acts that addressed issues in public schools, in the United States. The Act was a significant part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” which aimed to lift all economically-vulnerable citizens to a better standard of living.
EASA set funding for all educational programs, and used funding as a method to bridge achievement gaps that existed between affluent schools and their struggling counterparts. The Act did not put into place a national curriculum, but it did provide resources and supports to schools in terms of improved instructional materials, and training and financial assistance to districts that educated large numbers of low-income children.
The federal funding, which is included in Title 1 of the Act, is distributed through state education agencies. To be eligible for the funding, at least 40 percent of a school’s population must be classified as low income by the U.S. Government. The funding is meant to help increase test scores and encourage academic development so that these children may have the means to escape poverty.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 put into place other provisions that included providing federal funding for stocking school libraries and ordering textbooks, funding collegiate research to improve training in schools, and extended the provisions to disabled children.
Over time, the law was amended to put stricter mandates on how funds were allocated to make sure the funds were used to benefit only academically at-risk students in low income areas. Today, schools that have a student bodies made up of fewer than 40 percent low income children can receive grants under varied grant levels.
The act was re-authorized and amended several times until the No Child Left Behind Act was codified into law in 2001.
Rehabilitation Act of 1973
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provides funding for vocational rehabilitation services, supported employment, independent living, and client assistance for people with disabilities. The law also effectively expanded the role of government in limiting discrimination based on a person’s disability in federal programs, federal employment, and federal contracting.
The Act also put into place accessibility requirements for the federal government; examples of these requirements include providing equipment to help an employee with disabilities work, such as audio equipment for people with low, or no, vision.
The approval of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also provided legal recourse to individuals who believe they were discriminated against because of a disability; they were allowed to file complaints with their state’s Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.
By extending civil rights protections to people with disabilities, the Act also allowed complainants to seek vindication of their rights in education and private sector employment. The Act made it possible for a complainant to pursue the guilty party for legal fees if an agency, school, or company was found to be discriminatory in its practices.
Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974
The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, or FERPA, gives students and their parents access to student records, and all of the information disclosed in those records. The Act prohibits school districts from disclosing the contents of records to third parties without consent after a student turns 18 years old and gives parents the right to seek amendments to records.
Prior to the passage of FERPA, school districts commonly provided information about a child’s performance in school, their behavior, their intellectual abilities, or their grades to persons other than those at school. Under FERPA, school administrators must seek written approval to provide such information. The Act applies only to educational organizations that receive funding from the federal government.
Student testing – the examinations state education authorities use to measure academic progress – also falls under FERPA because student data is transferred electronically between schools and state and federal agencies.
FERPA also provides students enrolled in the post-secondary institution with certain privacy rights; the institution cannot release data about a student’s enrollment, academic performance, or financial status without the express written consent of the student.
A parent may be able to access a student’s personal data when a student is 18 years or older under the FERPA law if he or she is considered a dependent under the IRS code. This means that if a child’s disability is significant enough for him or her to be claimed as a dependent, the school may allow a parent to access these records without a student’s consent.
Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975
Commonly referred to as the EAHCA, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 required all publicly-funded schools accept federal funds to extend equal access to a meaningful education for all students with disabilities. The legislation was enacted at a time when many civil rights initiatives were being passed into law.
A forerunner of the current special education laws, EAHCEA required schools to create programs that closely resembled those that other children in the school enjoyed. The goal of the EAHCA Act includes ensuring that a special education student receives specialized services; guaranteeing that services are appropriate and implementing auditing requirements to be followed by school districts.
That meant, curriculums that were taught in specific grades would also be taught to children with disabilities. The funds were used to pay for equipment and resources educators would need to meet that goal.
EACHA states that children with disabilities are entitled to the same, well-rounded education as other students, and that instruction should be provided in an environment that is as least restrictive as possible. This paved the way for disabled students to join other young people in mainstreamed classrooms whenever possible.
This Act also put into place an administrative procedure that parents of a disabled child could participate in if they believed their child was not being properly educated. This process included a dispute resolution process that was aimed at finding solutions for a child. If an agreement could not be reached, the Act also put into place a provision that allowed parents to take their dispute to the court system.
The EAHCA Act was upheld by the United States Supreme Court, which further solidified a child’s right to an appropriate education.
McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987
Approved by the Legislature in 1987, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act provides funding for homeless shelters and homeless avoidance programs in all 50 states. The federal law was approved in recognition of a sudden increase in the number of people who became homeless in the 1980s because of de-institutionalization of vulnerable populations, including people with disabilities.
Although most families that include a child with disabilities will not have to cope with homelessness, the McKinney Act provides some important protections when a family is homeless. The law is comprised of 15 programs, including Continuum of Care services that provide case management services, temporary shelter programs, supportive housing programs, and single occupancy room programs.
The McKinney Act the Interagency Council on Homelessness, which aims to identify viable solutions to what is a complex problem for governments, and for individuals who find themselves without a permanent home.
The Act has been revised several times since it was enacted. One of the most significant amendments was a measure that allows young people facing homeless to remain in their school or origin even if they are staying at a location outside of their school district boundary. Also, the law allows parents to enroll a homeless student even if the parent does not have proper paperwork.
Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988
The Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 provides people with disabilities increased access to assistive technology at school. The law recognizes that during a time of technological advancement, people with special needs are in a unique position to take advantage of an expansion of capabilities that computerized devices can provide.
Initially, a grant was provided to each state to create new programs through non-profit and governmental agencies. Programs that were successful were invited to compete in competitive grant programs to maintain their funding after five years.
This law is one of several assistive technology acts that provide resources to states to expand the use of assistive devices among people with disabilities – especially those that are young.
The Act has been re-authorized several times; the first time was in 1994. Afterwards, the Act was re-authorized in 1998. The Act was due to expire in 2004 when it was replaced by the Assistive Technology Act of 2004, which maintained funding for state programs, and shifted some focus to providing individuals with technologies they need to improve their functionality.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 is a landmark law that provided students with disabilities with more rights at school, and more educational opportunities than ever before. The act, commonly called IDEA, was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1989. The Act was approved in 1990 by the U.S. Senate.
The Act replaced the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which fell short of providing every child with a disability with an appropriate education because of existing state laws that often excluded children based on their physical or developmental difficulties.
The IDEA Act also governs how school districts administer several services to children, including special education, early intervention, transition activities, and specialized training. These provisions are intended to close the gap on services that previously deprived children with disabilities of a meaningful education.
The cornerstone of the IDEA law is that it entitles children with disabilities to what is termed a Free and Appropriate Education, or FAPE. A Free and Appropriate Education is an education that, to the highest extent possible, mirrors an education received by other students in the same grade that includes individualized services. IDEA placed a high premium on mainstreamed settings and least-restrictive environments; it codifies into law a child’s right to take part in classes with their non-disabled peers while recognizing that a child with disabilities may participate in educational activities in a modified way.
Under IDEA, services can be extended to children with disabilities from infancy until they turn 21 years old (states have separate provisions that may, or may not, extend that age). IDEA provisions only apply to schools that accept IDEA funding.
The IDEA Act not only mandates that all children with a disability are entitled to special education services; it reserves those services for students that need services to fully participate in school. Generally, students that have visual, speech and language, hearing, or intellectual disabilities will receive services, along with students that have traumatic brain injuries. Of the 14 conditions that justify services under IDEA, Cerebral Palsy is one.
The IDEA Act requires educators to follow specific guidelines to make sure that the most inclusive solutions are identified, and implemented, for a child at school. The most significant of these provisions is the Individualized Education Program, or IEP, requirement. School districts must develop an IEP for each child – a committee that includes teachers, professionals, special education experts, and parents determine the best plans for a child, and the parent has the right to sign off on it, or reject it.
When a child reaches his or her teen years, a plan called the Individualized Family Service Plan, or IFSP, is developed by school officials and parents to identify a child’s strengths and weaknesses. It also determines what additional supports a child will need as they reach adulthood. These supports take into consideration a child’s mobility, ability to live independently, ability to communicate, and how they participate in activities. The goal of the plan is align resources, considering all of the facts, which will enhance a child’s ability to live independently. An example of this would be teaching a child about public transportation, or finding avenues to employment.
Child Find, an agency that requires professionals such as pre-school teachers or hospital staff to refer a child so that parents can be contacted about receiving early intervention services was also put into place by IDEA.
Since its inception, the IDEA Act has been modified and re-authorized several times. In 1997, an amendment was added that addressed the needs of children ages 3 to 9 years old with developmental disabilities. In 2004, the act was re-authorized with new provisions regarding providing preparation for workforce training and independent living.
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is the farthest-reaching legislation approved in the United States on behalf of people with special needs. The Act covers adults and children with disabilities; it has had a profound effect on how people with special needs participate in the greater world. The Act provided the broadest civil rights protections to people with disabilities to date.
Some of the protections that the ADA put into place include anti-discrimination provisions that make it illegal not to hire a person for a job solely based on their disability. The law also impels employers and public entities to provide reasonable accommodations so that a person with disabilities can work, take part in activities, take advantage of public transit, or enjoy public spaces and facilities, just as everyone else does. The Act also put into place strongly-worded mandates disallowing housing discrimination.
The ADA also required that new telecommunication technology be implemented to assist people with disabilities. The law provided for the expansion of teletypewriter, or TTY, and Telecommunications Devices of the Deaf, or TDD, technologies throughout the United States.
The ADA also put into place recourse for people who believe their rights have been violated under law. Many states, once a lawsuit is filed, allow for a complainant’s issue to be resolved by rectifying the situation. For example, if a person believes they have been denied housing because they use a wheelchair and sues, the situation may be rectified if a landlord agrees to rent the complainant an apartment. Other states allow a complainant to collect financial damages.
Government Results and Performance Act of 1993
The Government Performance and Results Act, or GPRA was enacted to improve, and streamline, project management in all sectors of the federal government.
The GPRA puts into place measurements and checks long used in private industry, such as goal-setting, measuring the effectiveness of policies and programs, and reporting results. The hope among legislators that approved the law was to bring more efficiency to government operations.
Again, this law does not specifically address the needs of families that include a child with special needs. But it affects every government agency that a parent will come into contact with as he or she works through the process of finding assistance for a child. The GPRA mandates agencies to have five-year plans, which gives parents an idea of what resources may be available for their child down the line.
Under the GPRA Act, parents will be able to determine whether a program will be beneficial to their child because statements of goals and results can be verified because of the reporting mandate.
No Child Left Behind Act of 2001
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is an amended and re-authorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The all-encompassing law addresses all aspects of education funding, including Title I, which established additional funds for low incomes schools.
The biggest change represented by the NCLB Act was the accountability provisions that were put into by its passage. The Act required that teachers of specific subjects meet certain educational requirements that designate them as “highly-qualified” to teach a subject or grade. The legislation also put into place benchmarks in terms of student progress on individual schools, and set time limits on schools to demonstrate that students are making educational strides. If the school cannot show adequate progress in a given period of time, an improvement plan must be submitted to avoid closure.
Also, families that have a child at a consistently failing school have the option to enroll at an out-of-district school.
Adequate progress is measured by annual tests, the results of which must be submitted to state education agencies and the federal government.
Children with disabilities are tested along with other students, although they may take their test in a modified way, depending on the nature of his or her special need. By 2014, the law mandates that every child with a special need takes statewide assessment tests. The scores of students with Individualized Education Plans are counted in the same way as other students.
The law only affects schools that receive federal funding.
Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007
When children that are not low income start attending school they’re typically enrolled at preschool. When a child is considered low income, he or she may qualify to attend the subsidized early childhood program known as Head Start.
Although Head Start was created in the 1960s, the program underwent a makeover courtesy of a law called the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act. This law brought some notable changes to the program, including provisions that increased funding for migrant and seasonal Head Start programs, permitting Head Start programs to increase the number of participants by 35 percent, and allowing locally-run programs to admit children of families that earn between 100 and 130 percent of the poverty level if most of the families served earn less than the federal poverty rate.
Although children with disabilities have always been admitted to Head Start programs if their family met income requirements, the Act put into writing that children with special needs are to be served by local Head Start programs.
Other provisions that the 2007 re-authorization put into place included new educational requirements for Head Start teachers and child development specialists, quality enhancements in curriculum and programming, and access to incentive grants.
The law also required states to establish advisory councils to steer policies and develop guidelines for local programs.
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA was approved, after much debate, in 2009 to keep the U.S. economy on an even keel through a deep recession.
The ARRA did not specifically address people with disabilities, save for an increase in IDEA funding. But because people with special needs are often economically vulnerable, some of the provisions and appropriations made to keep crucial programs available likely helped many people with disabilities. Many programs, such as federal food assistance, were stretched to their limits because significant unemployment drove huge numbers of people to seek aid.
Most ARRA appropriations and provisions were enacted with low-income individuals in mind; the number of weeks of unemployment compensation was increased exponentially under the Act. Additionally, a $16 million infusion into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program covered record numbers of applicants that might have otherwise gone hungry. Food banks and the federal school lunch program also received additional funding.
Supplemental Security Income recipients received a one-time payment of $250. The number of low income workers that received an expanded child tax credit was also increased.
People who lost their job received a one-time, $2,400 tax exclusion if they collected unemployment compensation.
The U.S. public school system also received some additional funds to run the Head Start program. Additional monies also helped shore up Medicaid funds provided to states, and local housing authorities in need of repairing and modernizing units.
Every child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Some children require aids and supports. Parents are urged to research and meet with educators in the public and private sectors to decide the appropriate education path to meet their child’s needs.
About Special Education
- The Value of Education
- Special Education Legislation
- Special Education Options
- Eligibility for Special Education
- Special Education Assessments
- Special Education Planning Team
- Special Education Services
- Types of Special Education Plans
- School Transitions
- Dispute Resolution
- School Nutrition Programs
- Adaptive Sports in the Public School System