Special Education History

Special education history in the United States can be traced back to right after World War II. One of the first documented advocacy parent groups was the American Association of Mental Deficiency.

In the early 1950’s, a number of parent organizations were organized, including the United Cerebral Palsy Association and the Muscular Dystrophy Association. 


Before 1975, many children were denied access to public school, especially those who were blind, deaf, severely disabled or suffered from mental retardation.   It wasn't unheard of for these children to not attend school and they often remained at home.  It was up to their parents to educate them and teach them basic life skills.

In 1975 the federal government passed the Education for all Handicapped Children Act.   This law protected the rights of children with disabilities and forced schools to meet their individual needs.   This law mandated schools to provide a free appropriate public education, also called FAPE, and stated that schools provide education to all in the least restrictive environment. This meant that if a special needs child could be educated in the mainstream classroom, schools had to provide the resources for this to occur.

In 1983, the law expanded to include parent training and by 1986, early intervention programs for pre-school children were added.   In 1990, the law was re-named the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).   It was recently re-authorized and expanded in 2004.

Special education history tells us that special education and the rights we now rely on to protect our children are relatively new.


Special education funding continues to be a problem for school districts as Congress continues to only fund around 15% of the promised 40% support needed to fund the mandates outlined in IDEA.

Hopefully, as we learn more about learning disorders and as technology continues to advance, the law protecting our children will continue to adapt as well.

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