Caring for those in Need

A Brief History of Special Education: Milestones in the First 50 Years (Part I of II)

Most people would consider the struggle for disability rights and inclusion to have begun in the early 1970’s with the PARC Consent Decree and the passage of P.L. 94-142, The Education for Handicapped Children Act. However, the disability rights movement and the creation of special education laws owe a debt of gratitude to Thurgood Marshall who argued in 1954 before the United States Supreme Court in the Brown vs. The Board of Topeka, Kansas.

BY Linda Shandrick Lengyel, Ph.D. and Ernst VanBergeijk, Ph.D., M.S.W. | June 2021 | Category: 50th Anniversary Issue

A Brief History of Special Education: Milestones in the First 50 Years (Part I of II)

In this landmark decision, the Supreme Court knocked down the “separate but equal” doctrine, which was the foundation of school segregation based upon race. Disability rights advocates used this premise to argue that disabled students were being excluded from education or were served separately in substandard conditions. Estimates were that over 7 million students with disabilities were excluded from public education.

Beyond dismissing the doctrine of “separate but equal” another impact of Brown vs. The Board of Topeka decision was that social movements began turning to the courts for remedy. The Brown case was on the behalf of a “class” of people, having widespread impact for students based on race. In the early 70s there were two seminal class action court cases where states were challenged for not providing an education to students who were disabled, arguing that students with disabilities had the same rights as students without disabilities, and that because of the Brown case, all non-disabled students had the right to an education. The PARC (Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens) v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania ended in a settlement agreement in 1972. The PARC Consent Decree stated that the state of Pennsylvania had to provide a free public education for all students with intellectual disabilities and included procedure protections. Similarly, the Mills v. Board of Education was against the District of Columbia in 1972. The Mills case extended the right to education to all students with disabilities in the District of Columbia, including students who were being denied an education due to expulsion and suspension as disciplinary measures (Yell et al., 2011).

Across the country other class action lawsuits were happening based on the need for change in the educational systems. As this was occurring, the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and specifically Section 504 of the Act, became the first piece of federal legislation that made it illegal for public institutions which received federal funds to discriminate against individuals on the basis of disability. Initially, the law was used to provide physical access to buildings for those individuals with mobility issues. The struggle to obtain those rights is beautifully captured in therecently-Oscar nominated documentary film, Crip Camp. Those same advocates pushed to have the rights of individuals with disabilities expanded to include private entities with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Although initially aimed at protecting the rights of individuals with physical disabilities and providing physical access, the protections were expanded beyond physical access and physical disabilities.

Shortly after the Vocational Rehabilitation Act was passed, federal legislation was passed that mandated and protected the rights of all children with disabilities to have a free public education. The PARC and Mills cases provided the blueprint for Public Law 94-142: The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (EHA). It is commonly reported that there are six major principles of the EHA (now called IDEA), however, what is included in the list varies; here we are reporting seven major principles that are all still a part of today’s law:

  1. All students have a right to a free and public education, known as F.A.P.E.
  2. All students have a right to be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment, L.R.E.
  3. All students have a right to an Individual Education Program
  4. Non-discriminatory assessment and evaluation
  5. Parent involvement
  6. Due process procedural safeguards
  7. Zero-reject

Once legislation has passed, implementation begins which leads to defining the terms and standards of the legislation. As new laws are implemented, the courts, through litigation, are used to provide guidance in following the mandates. Some court decisions have limited reach, while others cross geographic regions, all dependent on how high in the system the case is heard. Federal laws then become “reauthorized”, with changes based, in part, on the findings of the courts. Naturally, after the EHA was passed, there were key court cases that further defined the mandates. In 1982 the Hendrick Hudson Dist. Bd. Of Ed. V. Rowley was the first EHA case heard by the Supreme Court. Amy Rowley, a deaf student, and her parents requested a sign-language interpreter for Amy but were denied. The lower court established that each child should be given the supports needed to reach their fullest potential. However, the Supreme Court overruled, stating that that an appropriate education was provided if the IEP was “reasonably calculated to confer educational benefit” (Yell et al., 2011). Because Amy was doing well academically, she was denied an interpreter. Because the term “educationally benefit” did not specify a standard for adequate educational benefit, future cases applied different standards in deciding whether the provision of FAPE was provided based on educational benefit (Yell & Bateman, 2020).

In 1984, there was another key court case focused on related services in relation to the provision of FAPE. Irving Independent School District v. Tatro stated that health care services that can be provided by a nurse or other trained professional must be provided to the student as a related service if they are necessary to enable the student to receive FAPE; medical services required to be delivered by a physician were not consider a related service. Amber Tatro was an eight-year-old with spina bifida who required clean intermittent catheterization (CIC) during the school day. The school district considered this a medical service and therefore they were not required to include the use of a CIC in her IEP. One of the compelling arguments that this was a related service and not a medical service was that Ambers family members were, after a short training, qualified to perform the procedure, and it was anticipated that Amber herself would soon be able to perform the procedure.

In 1986, there was a reauthorization of the EHA; the significance of this reauthorization is that it expanded who was covered to include early intervention services beginning at birth through the age of two years old; previously, the EHA covered young children beginning at the age of three. Additionally, it was established that children receiving those services were required to have an Individualized Family Service Plan, a provision that expanded the requirement of an IEP to include services for the family. Also of importance, in that same year, congress passed The Handicapped Children’s Protection Act that authorized courts to award attorney’s fees and other expenses that parents or guardians incurred because of pursuing administrative or civil actions under the EHA act of 1975, strengthening the provision of due process procedural safeguards (Florian & West, 1989).

There were several notable court cases that occurred before the next reauthorization in 1990. In 1988 the Honig v. Doe case addressed the expulsion of students with behavioral challenges. The resulting ruling was that schools could not expel a student because of a behavior related to their disability and that suspensions that were over 10 consecutive days in length were considered a change of placement, requiring the IEP team to reconvene. Expulsion or a suspension that lasted longer than 10 days without a change of placement would be considered a denial of FAPE. This case also established that the student would stay in the current placement (stay-put provision) during any administrative or judicial hearings and procedures (Yell et al., 2011).

In 1989, in Timothy W. v. Rochester, a court found that a student was wrongly being denied FAPE because the school district considered him too disabled to receive benefit from an education. The ruling in this court reaffirmed the notion that all students had a right to FAPE, regardless of the severity of their disability, supporting the zero reject provision of EHA (Baumgart & Giangreco, 1996). Another case of significance provided direct guidance to the LRE mandate by implementing a two-pronged test to determine if a student could be moved to a more restrictive environment. In Daniel RR v. State Board of Education (1989), the court applied a two-pronged test, recognizing the difficulty in determining what the least restrictive environment is for the student to receive an appropriate education (FAPE). In this case, the fundament question was when it is okay to remove a student from an inclusive classroom to a self-contained classroom. The court ascertained that the IEP team must first determine if, with the use of supplemental aids and services, the child can receive an appropriate education in the general education classroom (Marx et al., 2014; Yell & Drasgow, 1999). Significant to this test is the consideration of non-academic benefit. Previously in Rowley it was established that academic benefit was a determination in the appropriateness of an IEP; this case highlighted also the non-academic benefits, such as social benefit. Another consideration was the impact on the education of the non-disabled students in the classroom, giving the school district the leeway to remove a student if they are considered disruptive to the education of other students. The second prong of the test focused on other opportunities to be with non-disabled peers. If the student could not be satisfactorily educated in the academic classroom beside their non-disabled peers, the school must still consider including the student to the maximum extent possible. This case made clear that the intent of the EHA was for students with disabilities to be educated as much as possible alongside their non-disabled peers, and that education included non-academic classroom opportunities as well as lunch and recess (Martin et al., 1996; Marx et al., 2014; Yell & Drasgow, 1999). 

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

There were several major changes to the EHA in the reauthorization of 1990; one of those was the name of the law itself. In 1990, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was renamed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), emphasizing a change to “people-first” language as well as using the word disabilities in place of handicapped. Also significant was the mandate a transition plan be provided to all students with an IEP beginning at the age of 16. Additionally, this reauthorization added two distinct categories of disabilities to be covered under the law: Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and autism. Assistive technology, for the first time, was a part of the law, adding both assistive technology devices and services (Yell et al., 2011).

After the 1990 reauthorization, there were two more court cases that applied “tests” or a process to determine placement in the least restrictive environment. It was an exciting time for advocates of inclusive education because these cases were occurring at the same time in circuit courts on the East and West coasts. Although in Daniel RR a “test” was established, it did not need to be applied in courts across the country, which is why it is important to understand how courts impact legislation. When there are multiple cases across different geographic regions that have similar findings, it is not unusual to see the impact of those findings in the legislation. Courts have not been consistent in their rulings for inclusive education, thus utility of using these pronged tests. The Oberti v. Board of Education of the Borough of Clementon School District (1993) introduced a three-prong test of LRE. The court determined these factors were relevant in considering the least restrictive environment for an appropriate education:

  1. whether the school made “reasonable effort” in including the student in the general education classroom;
  2. comparison of the educational benefits of being included in the general education classroom with supplemental aids and services to the benefits of being educated in the special education classroom; and,
  3. the impact of the inclusion of the student on their non-disabled peers (Bradley & Wintermann, 2014; Martin et al., 1996; Marx et al., 2014).

The findings of the court were that the school district had not made reasonable effort to include Rafael, a kindergarten student, in part because they had not applied the same strategies and techniques while he was in the general education classroom that were deemed successful in the special education classroom. This further supported the findings of the Daniel RR case where it must be first determined that with the use of supplemental aids and services the student will not receive educational benefit before removing the student from the classroom.

While the Oberti case was happening on the East coast, on the West coast the Sacramento City School District v. Rachel H. case was occurring. When Rachel Holland was in kindergarten, her parents requested that she be placed in the general education classroom full time; the district contended that Rachel would be best educated in the special education classroom for academic subjects and could be in the general education classroom for non-academic times, requiring Rachel to move back and forth between the classrooms. Similar to the Oberti and Daniel RR cases, there was a pronged test; this court applied four considerations. The courts considered both the academic and nonacademic benefits, the effects on inclusion on non-disabled students and the teacher; and in the cost of including Rachel (Bradley & Wintermann, 2014; Martin et al., 1996; Marx et al., 2014). The courts found that Rachel would derive more benefit both academically and non-academically in the general education classroom without distracting the other students with the assistance of a part-time aide. Furthermore, the court found that the cost of including Rachel was overestimated by the district and that although it could be a consideration, costs were not a factor that would prohibit Rachel from being included. In both the Oberti and Holland cases, the court placed the burden of proof on the School Districts, which was seen as a significant win by educational advocates. The outcomes of these cases were celebrated by advocates of inclusion across the country.

The reauthorization in 1997 had many significant implications, and not surprisingly strengthened the focus on inclusive education, although the terms inclusive or inclusion are not in the law itself.  Several of the changes were directly designed to improve the inclusive opportunities given to students with disabilities through the provision of the IEP (Wolfe & Harriott, 1998). The composition of the IEP team was addressed by adding the stipulation that at least one general education teacher be involved if the student is expected to be in the general education environment. Added to the existing statement of present levels was the requirement of a statement describing how the student’s disability affects his or her involvement and progress in the general education curriculum. Also added was the requirement to justify the extent to which the student will not participate in general education classes and curriculum. The inclusion of all students in state accountability measures were required, even students with “the most significant cognitive disabilities” (Ryndak et al., 2014). This reauthorization made even clearer the preference for inclusive education and involvement in the general education curriculum.

Another area that had a significant focus was that of behavior supports and discipline (Wolfe & Harriott, 1998). There was a focus on providing behavioral supports and a functional behavioral assessment. Before disciplinary action can be taken, or within 10 days, the team must also conduct a manifestation determination to understand whether the behavior that the student is being disciplined for was a manifestation of their disability, and part of the hearing was a review of what assessments and supports were being provided. Transition services was again addressed in this reauthorization lowering the age requirement for a transition statement from 16 to 14 years old. Details of the transition statement were expanded to include that the IEP should be related to the student’s specific course of study, and transition services were defined. When the student reaches the age of 16, those services must be identified, as well as the providers of those services, including interagency responsibilities and linkages.

The next reauthorization of 2004 did not have as many significant changes as the previous one. Although the name was officially changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEIA), IDEA is still the acronym most used. The changes of this reauthorization are characterized by the alignment with No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), focusing on accountability (Turnbull, 2005). The requirement that special educators be highly qualified was added to IDEIA, along with the provision of evidenced-based practices, both following the lead of NCLB.

One of the little-known outcomes of the re-authorization of IDEA in 2004 occurred during the public commentary period before IDEA. The U.S. Department of Education was responding to advocates’ calls to include language that explicitly allowed school districts to pay for transition services, including community-based and college-based transition programs. The U.S. DOE responded by stating that IEP teams have always had the ability to pay for community-based or college-based transition programs under Part B of IDEA. In fact, the exact language can be found in 34 CFR Parts 300 and 301 Assistance to States for the Education of Children with Disabilities and Preschool Grants for Children with Disabilities: Final Rule, on page 46,668.

The Schaffer vs. Weast U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005 dealt a blow to special education advocates and families. Prior to this decision, when there was a dispute between a family and a school district, the burden of proof was laid upon the school district to demonstrate that the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) met the student’s goals. If the school district lost the case, they were responsible for the legal fees of the family. The Weast decision reversed the burden of proof, meaning it was incumbent upon to the families to prove the IEP was insufficient and not meeting the student’s goals. School districts which usually have attorneys on retainer, if not on staff, went from losing the majority of disputes to winning more disputes, especially if families were not represented by legal counsel.  

*A Brief History of Special Education: Milestones in the First 50 Years (Part II) will focus on special education and the transition aged years. It will be published in EP Magazine’s July 2021 issue. 


Linda Shandrick Lengyel, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at Lesley University in Cambridge MA. Linda is in the Special Education Teacher Preparation program at the Graduate School of Education, preparing teachers to include students with disabilities in inclusive settings. She is also in the Threshold Program, teaching students advocacy and self-determination skills. Her career focus has been inclusive education, transition services, and advocacy.

Ernst VanBergeijk, Ph.D., M.S.W. is a Professor at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA and is the Director of the Threshold Program which is a post-secondary transition program for students with a variety of disabilities. He also oversees the Lesley University Threshold Alumni Center which provides life-long support for graduates of the Threshold Program. Beginning Summer 2022, the Threshold Program will be offering a six-week summer program focusing upon the acquisition of preemployment, independent living and social skills.


20 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Parts, 676, 677, and 678. Department of Labor. Employment and Training Administration.

34 CFR Parts 300 and 301 Assistance to States for the Education of Children With Disabilities and Preschool Grants for Children With Disabilities; Final Rule

34 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Parts 361 and 463. Department of Education. Workforce Innovation and Opportunity, Joint Rule for Unified and Combined State Plans, Performance Accountability, the One-Stop System Joint Provisions; Final Rule 

34 CFR Parts 361, 363, and 397 RIN 1820-AB70 [Docket ID ED-2015-OSERS-OOO1] State Vocational Rehabilitation Services program; State Supported Employment Services program; Limitations on Use of Subminimum Wage

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Ryndak, D. L., Taub, D., Jorgensen, C. M., Gonsier-Gerdin, J., Arndt, K., Sauer, J., Ruppar, A. L., Morningstar, M. E., & Allcock, H. (2014). Policy and the impact on placement, involvement, and progress in general education: Critical issues that require rectification. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 39(1), 65-74.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) (H.R. 803).

Timothy W. v. Rochester, New Hampshire, School District, 875 f.2d 954 (1st Cir. 1989).

Turnbull, H. R. (2005). Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Reauthorization: Accountability and personal responsibility. Remedial and Special Education, 26(6), 320-326.

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