The Impact of I.D.E.A. for Students With Disabilities and Education Equality: 40 Years Later

Since 1975, I.D.E.A. was created to provide individuals with any learning, mental and/or physical disabilities equal access to education, protection under the law from harassment and discrimination, and self-sufficiency skills for independence in their post-educational lives.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.


In "Achieved: 25 year History of the IDEA," Allan's story is described. In the late 1940s, an infant named Allan was found on the steps of an institution for persons with mental retardation. By the time he was 35, Allan was totally blind, and his face was heavily callused. While he was in the institution, Allan had been observed quite often sitting in the corner humming, rocking back and forth slapping himself in the face. This is how he spent most of his life.

It wasn't until the late 1970s that Allan was properly assessed. The examiners were quite shocked to learn that the results of their evaluation revealed that not only did Allan have an average level of intelligence, but also, Allan's blindness wasn't the result of a condition or a birth defect, but as a result of self-harming behaviors he had taught himself by observing the behaviors of fellow residents in the institution.

As a result of Allan's assessment, despite intervening with him so late in his life, the institution began teaching him skills through a special program to become more independent. Allan's story was all too common for people with learning and/or other forms of disability due to the lack of appropriate evaluations, assessments and effective interventions of the time.

Before Congress enacted Public Law 94-142, or the Education of All Handicapped Children's Act in 1975, schools were not required to educate children with disabilities whatsoever. Some states even had laws that allowed them to deny access to education of children with disabilities. Families were fortunate to find privatized education for their child's special educational needs. Most children with disabilities were either kept home with family members to care for them, and children with more severe disabilities were institutionalized in facilities among those with learning impairments and mental retardation.

A Brief History

The first to utilize "special needs" classes was in Germany, in 1863. Rhode Island, Chicago and Boston started their own "special needs" classes right after in 1864. The initial intent of these "special needs" classes was to:

Remove feeble-minded children from the regular school system where they were thought to constitute a disruptive influence on the regular pupils; to provide feeble-minded children with special education suitable to their needs and particularly one that would make them self-supporting; to protect them from harassment by children in regular classes; and determine which among them was incapable of education and training and should be sent to custodial institutions -- From Asylum to Welfare, Harvey G. Simmons, National Institute on Mental Retardation, (1982).

Congress passed into law the first of many pieces of legislation to provide students with disabilities legal protection and equal opportunities to learning and education. This law was known as the Education for All Handicapped Act in 1974 and in 1975, Public Law 94-142 or, the Education of All Handicapped Children's Act (E.H.C.A.) had written in the first requirements for the development of the Individualized Education Program, also known as an I.E.P. When it was first enacted, E.H.A. required provisions of special education services for students with disabilities.

The 108th Congress reauthorized the amendment of I.D.E.A. in 2004, Public Law 108-446, changing the name again to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act and went further to define it's accountability requirements and introduced an easier I.E.P. process with less paperwork and fewer meetings. Every amendment created and introduced to I.D.E.A. was done so to address new challenges or needs that were identified since the previous re-authorization/amendment in accountability of requirements.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or I.D.E.A. as it is known nowadays has greatly impacted opportunities to learning, allowing for individuals with mental and/or physical disabilities equal access to education in the 40 years that the law was enacted. The intentions of I.D.E.A. has evolved and impacted students with disabilities to achieving equal access to education.

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or I.D.E.A.

Since 1975, I.D.E.A. was created to provide individuals with any learning, mental and/or physical disabilities equal access to education, protection under the law from harassment and discrimination, and self-sufficiency skills for independence in their post-educational lives. Any school receiving federal funding is mandated to provide free and equal access to public education for students with disabilities with a least restrictive and inclusive learning environment and by protecting students with disabilities legally from discrimination and bullying from peers, the intentions of I.D.E.A. is to provide all student of any ability an equal opportunity to learn.

What is an I.E.P.?

As defined by the U.S. Department of Education, special education services and other interventions in schools for students with disabilities are provided to students who have an Individualized Education Plan or I.E.P. Each I.E.P. is individually designed, one per student, to aid a child with disabilities to meet the same state, federal and other academic requirements, standards and testing goals of students with disabilities for achieving a high school diploma and postgraduate life. An in-depth process takes place to accommodate a student appropriately with an I.E.P. All students who are evaluated with having special needs must develop an I.E.P. to access and utilize services.

There is no single standardized form or format when creating and I.E.P. document. However, clear concise language when writing out an I.E.P. is useful for all participating members of an I.E.P. team to understand and when defining all required elements for an I.E.P. document to be effective. Application of I.D.E.A. with the proper use of an I.E.P. for children with disabilities not only intends to provide an avenue towards equal access to education and learning, it is constitutionally protected right under law. One that can benefit children with disabilities gain knowledge and self-sufficiency for their adulthood.


Adara is my daughter. She was born in 2001 at one month premature due to multiple potential health issues. At five months in-utero, she was diagnosed with Hydrocephalus, a condition that causes fluid to improperly drain from the brain. At 18 hours old she had surgery to place a shunt in her brain to drain excess fluid from the brain with a tube under her skin leading into her stomach cavity. At one year of age Adara was confirmed to have FSHD Muscular Dystrophy, a muscle wasting genetic disease, one that she shares with all three previous generations of her maternal family. At two-and-a-half Adara experienced her first of two seizures, prompting her to be medicated for five years with a seizure disorder.

When Adara was seven, she started the first grade with an I.E.P. or Individualized Education Plan to begin her education and integration into a classroom environment with peers closest to her age and ability. Adara's first year was a little rocky. Since Adara wasn't exposed to a lot of other children her age, and because she had never been in a classroom environment before, she didn't understand her fellow classmates or classroom expectations of behavior. She had to learn from the beginning and catch up to her peers skills in reading, writing and math, as well as her social skills and interactions with other students, like sharing, making friends, conflict resolution and problem solving. Adara was placed in a normal classroom setting with intervening sessions where Adara was pulled from her class to work with special ed teachers, counselors, therapists and other specialized educators and trained professionals to provide Adara those skills she is behind in addressed by her I.E.P. supported by her school.

In 2014/15, Adara is 13 years old. She still has an I.E.P., but only to help her continue to adapt socially with her peers and in making friends. Adara now excels in reading, and is doing well in math. She no longer needs extensive specialized education for her reading comprehension, handwriting and spelling or math skills because of the attention to Adara's individual needs from multiple interventions throughout her education provided to her through her I.E.P. Adara was able to catch up to, and now meet the same educational requirements and expectations as her peers.

Other Interpretations of I.D.E.A.

Other interpretations of I.D.E.A. and the use of I.E.P.'s imply that a student's access to free and equal education is impeded by means of segregation, and by allowing for exemptions of students with disabilities from meeting school, district, state, and federal testing standards and requirements, as well as minimalist requirements for education to assist a student with disabilities to graduate. Also, this would allow for schools to still qualify for state, federal, or other funding qualifications by excluding students with special educational needs from meeting testing standards.

Assessed as institutionalizing "ableism" by using I.E.P.'s to discriminate against and segregate students with disabilities away from other "able-bodied" peers. Thomas Hehir defines "ableism" as

the devaluation of disability that results in societal attitudes that uncritically asserts that it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, read print than braille, spell independently than use spellcheck, and hang out with nondisabled kids as opposed to other disabled kids.

Special education, despite being designed to meet the needs of diverse groups of learners, has nonetheless been used to both create and perpetuate the marginalization of individuals based on the interconnected discourse of race and ability.

However, for students with disabilities, any discrimination that prevents them from gaining equal access to education is a legally actionable because of I.D.E.A. under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This Act protects and ensures all children with disabilities has access to education and services to aid them towards achieving academic success, encouraging self-sufficiency skills and protection from discrimination and bullying from other peers within the education environment, promising children like Allan and Adara a more promising and bright future.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or I.D.E.A. has opened opportunities to learning for any student with a learning impairment, mental and or physical disabilities equal access to education since the law was enacted. When an I.E.P. for a student with disabilities is correctly utilized, I.D.E.A. achieves it's intentions of providing those students with the same educational success in meeting academic criteria for a high school diploma and post educational self-sufficiency.

It has only been 40 years since education was mandated for children who have disabilities. Without I.D.E.A., families had very few options when it came to finding adequate schooling and learning environments that could provide special educational needs to address challenges due to a learning impairment, mental and/or physical disabilities. If I.D.E.A was not enacted today, children with disabilities may not be in schools getting their education, but left home instead. Those families lucky enough found private tutors, and other children with more severe impairments would most likely be institutionalized and placed into facilities with other individuals for mental disorders.

Overall, improved societal acceptance of individuals with disabilities over the last 40 years has contributed to I.D.E.A.'s success. Ongoing efforts of evaluating and addressing issues that may rise to challenge access to equal education, will further I.D.E.A. to achieving academic and postgraduate self-sufficiency success, and will continue to improve and provide a better educational experience and academic achievement for children and individuals with disabilities.

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community