A Brief History of Special Education
In the early 1970s, a simultaneous movement across the country resulted in the passage of important federal and state laws. Historically, children with disabilities were identified only if their educational needs were obvious. Thousands of students with disabilities were excluded from attending public schools. Those who were allowed to attend were typically placed in programs designed to serve children with similar disabilities in special education schools or locales. Such categorical programs were usually effective in providing specialized services for the populations they served; but in many cases, expectations for learning were inappropriate in relation to the students’ actual potential.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, amended in 1992, includes Section 504, which affirms the right of any student or adult who has a mental or physical impairment which inhibits a major life activity including learning; has a history of such an impairment; or is considered by a team of knowledgeable individuals to have such an impairment, from being discriminated against in any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. This Act also requires that students be given a free appropriate public education in general education classes, with necessary supplementary aids and services, if they are determined by a school team to be disabled under Section 504 or the Americans with Disabilities Act (A.D.A.). Such eligibility may exist without concurrent eligibility for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (I.D.E.A.).
The Rehabilitation Act was followed in 1975 by the passage of PL 94-142, the Education of Handicapped Act, which was changed in 1990 to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (I.D.E.A.). This legislation provides that all students who are eligible for special education must be provided with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). I.D.E.A. was reauthorized in 1997 and again 2004.
The California Legislature implements the provisions of I.D.E.A. through the “California Master Plan for Special Education”. This plan provides the legal foundation for a comprehensive state-wide model for the provision of special education. It requires districts to have sufficient size and scope to meet the needs of all students with disabilities from birth to 22 either individually or as a special education service region. These regions are known as Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs), the backbone to California’s special education organizational model.
Some of the major areas covered by state and federal laws are the following:
- Child Find – Each public school system is responsible to find and serve all eligible children with disabilities in its area.
- Free Appropriate Public Education – Each public school system is responsible for ensuring that each child with disabilities is served appropriately, at no cost to the parent.
- Least Restrictive Environment – Each child is assured of his/her right of education with nondisabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate.
- Due Process – The right of parent participation, and challenge, in all aspects of assessment, identification and placement is assured; this involves mediation, administrative hearing procedures or complaint procedures in case of disputes.
- Individualized Educational Program – The right of a child to an educational program designed to meet his/her individual needs and based on adequate assessment is assured. At age 16, or younger if appropriate, the IEP includes transition requirements in the areas of education, training, employment, and independent living.
These concepts have been reinforced and interpreted by a number of court cases since the passage of the law. These laws and regulations promote changes and procedures leading to such things as the following:
- Coordination of Resources Among School Districts by Regions
- Less Restrictive Placements
- Increased Parent Participation
- Social Acceptance of Children with Disabilities
- Annual Reviews of Progress
- Local Governance Systems
- Compliance and Quality Assurance
- Staff Development Programs
- Full Service to All Students with Disabilities
- Guaranteed Equality of Access
- Individualized Educational Programs
- Improved Self-Esteem for Children with Disabilities
- Career Training
- Due Process Rights
- Program Reviews/Evaluation
- Community Involvement and Support
Gradually, the community and public agencies have become aware that children with disabilities can be educated with their non-disabled peers, guaranteeing equal opportunities for all children, including children with disabilities. Today, parents, students and staff work together to make certain that the appropriate services are provided on an individualized basis for every child with a disability. The services are provided through the Special Education Local Plan Areas – SELPAs. A Local Plan is developed and maintained in each community by the people who live there as the basis of these improvements and the foundation of all services.