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Special Education and Disability

Students with mental and physical disabilities in the United States were historically segregated from other students in most educational systems. While special programs were modified to provide different types of training for disabled children, these children were ordinarily separated from the mainstream students, not only to protect the children in special education but also to avoid disruption among other students without disabilities. The majority of disabled children did not attend school at all.

The move toward the recognition of rights for disabled students began with the famous 1954 case, Brown v. Board of Education, which established that “separate but equal” accommodations in education were not, in fact, equal. As other civil rights movements gained momentum throughout the 1960s, proponents for rights of disabled individuals also began to assert the rights of these individuals. Two landmark federal district court decisions in 1971 and 1972, PARC v. Pennsylvania and Mills v. Board of Education, established that denying education to children with disabilities and denying the proper procedures in such cases violated protections under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. A number of other cases since then have further established rights of disabled children.

A number of federal statutes have formed the basis for guaranteeing rights of disabled children since the mid-1970s. The following is a summary of these statutes:

  • Rehabilitation Act of 1973: This act established that those who receive federal financial assistance cannot discriminate on the basis of a disability.
  • Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA): Passed in 1975, this act provided support to state special education programs to provide free appropriate public education to disabled children.
  • Perkins Act: Passed in 1984, this act required that ten percent of federal funding for vocational education must support the education of disabled students.
  • Handicapped Children’s Protection Act of 1986: This act amended the EAHCA to provide attorney’s fees and costs to be awarded to parents who prevailed in an EAHCA case.
  • Education to the Handicapped Act Amendments of 1986: These acts added early intervention services for three-to five-year-olds, with incentive programs for younger children with disabilities.
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Passed in 1990, this act amended the EAHCA by modifying a number of the provisions in the original statute.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Passed in 1990, this major piece of legislation set forth broad prohibitions against discrimination of disabled individuals by most employers, public agencies, and those who provide public accommodations. Two titles in the Act apply specifically to schools.

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