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Thirty-five Years of Progress in Educating Children With Disabilities Through IDEA
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Conditions Before IDEA

Before the enactment of P.L. 94-142, the fate of many individuals with disabilities was likely to be dim. Too many individuals lived in state institutions for persons with mental retardation or mental illness. In 1967, for example, state institutions were homes to almost 200,000 persons with significant disabilities. Many of these restrictive settings provided only minimal food, clothing, and shelter. Too often, persons with disabilities received care for basic needs rather than education and rehabilitation.


Sue grew up with her stay-at-home mother and truck driver father in a rural community in Louisiana. Sue was born in the 1950s with no sight, significant cognitive disabilities, and severe behavior disorders. When Public Law 94-142 was passed in 1975, Sue was 20 and attended school for the first time.

Sue’s teacher worked closely with her mother to increase Sue’s independence. Sue learned socially appropriate language to communicate with others. Sue also learned to eat with utensils and walk independently with a cane in school and at home.

After a year of public school, Sue gained the quiet confidence of a young woman who was prepared to enter a new phase of life as an independent young adult.

Unfortunately, these stories were repeated in the life experiences of tens of thousands of individuals with disabilities who lacked support from IDEA. For example, in 1970, U.S. schools educated only one in five children with disabilities, and many states had laws excluding certain students from school, including children who were deaf, blind, emotionally disturbed, or mentally retarded.

Allan’s STORY

Allan was born nearly 10 weeks premature in 1949 in the same Louisiana community as Sue. After determining that Allan was significantly deaf, his family’s obstetrician contacted the regional early intervention provider. A services coordinator and team of providers evaluated Allan while he was still in the hospital. The team verified Allan’s hearing limitations and also identified that he had severe cognitive disabilities.

The team immediately developed an Individualized Family Service Plan that outlined services to be provided by physicians and early intervention experts. The plan also outlined ways in which Allan’s mother, a convenience store clerk, and father, a fisherman, could support his early development.

As Allan grew, so did his supports. Special education teachers and service providers helped him participate in classes and school activities, learn to groom himself, and explore an interest in drawing.

In eighth grade, Allan and his family met with a transition team to identify postsecondary and career goals. After high school graduation, Allan enrolled in a certificate program at a state university. During the program, he lived on his own in a dormitory, took courses, and participated in an internship at a local art gallery. Allan joined the gallery after completing his certificate, helping prepare and disseminate materials to promote upcoming exhibits.

Before IDEA, too many children were denied access to education and opportunities to learn. Providing appropriate education to youngsters from diverse cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds was especially challenging. Further, most families were not afforded the opportunity to be involved in planning or placement decisions regarding their children, and resources were not available to enable children with significant disabilities to live at home and receive an education at neighborhood schools in their community.

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Last Modified: 11/22/2010