Many of us, who went to school not too long ago, remember that being a special needs student meant going to school in a separate bus and being in a class with other children with different disabilities. These classes resembled daycare more than school, and even the most advanced students had little hope of receiving a high school diploma, let alone attending college. Since that time, the term disability and special needs student has broadened to encompass much more than a person with an IQ below some arbitrary standard. What I have tried to do in my first article is to give a little history of the evolution of the law on the education of people with disabilities.

In 1954 the United States Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, 347 US 483 (1954) which held that segregated schools constituted a violation of equal protective rights. It would be another twenty years before this concept was applied to children with disabilities, particularly learning disabilities, seeking to get an education. Indeed, shortly after Brown’s decision, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that compulsory education did not apply to students with mental disabilities, and until 1969, it was a felony to attempt to enroll a handicapped child in a public school if that child had ever been excluded.

Due to judicial challenges in Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia in the early 1970s, things began to change. In 1975 Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. This was the first law that mandated the right to education for all handicapped students. It not only mandated that all handicapped students had the right to an education, it also mandated that local education agencies could be held accountable for failing to do so. Shortly thereafter, the term handicapped was replaced with “disabled child”. Although revised in 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the most comprehensive changes occurred in 1997. This law required schools to identify children with disabilities to ensure that all children had access to “free public education and related products designed to meet their specific needs and prepare them for employment and independent living” 20 USC ยง 1401(d). Unfortunately, the most recent 2004 changes have made the law slightly more difficult to receive the benefits it deserves, which, depending on the next administration and the composition of Congress, may or may not be a trend that will be followed in the future.

What exactly is “free and adequate public education”? Under the Act, it is defined as “special education and related services that (A) have been provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and free of charge; (B) meet state educational agency standards; (C) include appropriate pre-school, elementary, or secondary education in the State concerned; and (D) are provided in accordance with the individualized educational program required pursuant to [the law].” In other words, the school must provide services that address the needs of a child with a disability that may affect their ability to learn. These “related services” can be services that are provided in the classroom, such as giving the child extra time to finish taking tests.They may also include services that can be provided outside of the classroom, such as tutoring or the child’s participation in a day or residential program outside of school, along with transportation.

For historical data, I relied on Wrightslaw: Special Education Law by Peter W. D. Wright and Pamela Darr Wright and Special Education Law in Massachusetts by Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education.

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