Can you believe it’s been 45 years since President Gerald Ford signed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) into law? The law that entitles all children with disabilities to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment? The law that also provides protections and services for infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities and their families? Yes, it’s been that long — and that awfully recent, too. 

For a little light reading, here’s a short history of IDEA.  

In 1970, only one in five children with disabilities was given access to education. Many children were institutionalized, didn’t attend school, or struggled in school without the individualized program they needed because there were no formal legal safeguards in place for children with disabilities to receive a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). 

Several court cases led to the creation of the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), starting with 1954’s Brown vs. Board of Education, where the court ruled that state laws allowing segregation in schools were unconstitutional. Equal rights became an important focus for the Civil Rights Movement, and propelled disability rights activism. In 1972, a group of families—whose children were denied FAPE from the state of Pennsylvania due to an intellectual disability—used the Brown decision to address the issue of equal education for children with disabilities. The case’s success helped create a new legal framework for what we now know as FAPE and IDEA. In 1975, the EHA was signed into law, and in 1990 the name of the law was changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to reflect inclusive language that puts the person first rather than the disability. 

According to the IDEA website, the U.S. has progressed from excluding more than 1.8 million children with disabilities from public schools (prior to EHA/IDEA) to providing special education and related services to more than 7.5 million children with disabilities. In the 2018–2019 school year, more than 64% of children with disabilities were in general education classrooms for 80% or more of their school day, and early intervention services were provided to more than 400,000 infants and toddlers and their families. 

IDEA has led to more children being educated in neighborhood schools rather than in separate schools and institutions, as well as higher rates of high school graduation, post-secondary school enrollment, and post-school employment for youth with disabilities. 

Disability Scoop reported in April 2019 that the U.S. Department of Education is laying the groundwork for another reauthorization (the last reauthorization of IDEA took place in 2004). The Department of Ed plans to conduct several surveys to gain a better understanding of how the law is being implemented across the country. According to a notice published in April 2019 in the Federal Register, this information will be used by the Education Department, Congress, and other stakeholders to plan for the law’s next update.

While we still have a long way to go to ensure inclusion, accessibility, and equal rights for all, IDEA has been a huge step in the right direction! Thank you, IDEA!

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