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The History of Special Education in the U.S.

Friday, August 25, 2017 | 12:00 AM

If you are earning your online Master of Education in Special Education degree, you are joining a community of other passionate, highly trained teachers. As a special education teacher, you are dedicating your career to supporting students with disabilities and helping them reach their highest academic potential. The road to the current special education system in the United States has been guided by the tireless work of advocacy groups, teachers, families of special needs students, and legislators. Over the last century, the field of special education has changed significantly. The following are some important historical highlights that have influenced and changed the course of special education over the last 40 years.

Special Education Happened at Home

In the early part of the 20th century, children with disabilities — including those with speech delays, cognitive or physical disabilities, and deafness, among other disabilities — often received their education at home or not at all. By the 1970s, very few special needs students were enrolled in public schools. For the most part, this was due to the lack of trained teachers and infrastructure to educate students with disabilities in public schools.

First Federal Special Education Legislation

In 1975, the first federal law pertaining to special education was passed. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) declared the right of special needs students to receive equal access to public education. The law mandated that schools identify students with disabilities and provide them with a “free and appropriate” education. Public schools were also required to create individual education plans (IEPs) for each student. This changed the landscape of special education in the United States, making it possible for special needs students to learn alongside their peers in public schools.

The 1990s: Amendments to IDEA

In 1990, EHA was renamed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). An amendment was passed that officially allowed students with autism and traumatic brain injury to be eligible for special education services. There was also a renewed focus on the education of special needs students, as opposed to previous special education philosophies and methodologies, which aimed to “fix” students with disabilities.

In 1997, another amendment to IDEA was passed. This amendment provided a definition for the term “Least Restrictive Environment.” It was determined that schools had to provide the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to special needs students, which allowed further integration of students with disabilities into general classrooms. This amendment helped pave the way for an increase in support for assistive technologies and other classroom aids.

The Positive Results of IDEA

Since the passing of IDEA legislation, students with disabilities have had more success than ever before. The data clearly show that IDEA has had a profound impact on the lives of special needs students and their families. Currently, the majority of special needs students are now being educated in public schools alongside their peers. Between 1984 and 1997, the high school graduation rate increased by 14 percent. Students who were able to benefit from IDEA have twice the employment rates as students who went to school before IDEA was enacted. Since 1978, the number of college freshmen who identified as having disabilities has tripled.

As a special education teacher, you have the unique opportunity to become part of the future of special education in the United States. Special education is an exciting and changing field. Working in the classroom with students with disabilities is an important job — helping not only special needs students but also their families and our society as a whole.

Learn about University of Texas Rio Grande Valley online M.Ed. in Special Education degree program.


Special Education News: The History of Special Education in the United States

U.S. Department of Education: Twenty-Five Years of Progress in Educating Children with Disabilities Through IDEA

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