Before 1975, public schools had few obligations to children with disabilities. Most children with disabilities, especially those with extreme disabilities, were not only unwelcomed to attend public schools, but regarded as uneducable. The children that were allowed to attend public school were segregated from their non-disabled peers. But, in 1975 The Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed which required all schools receiving federal funding to provide handicapped children equal access to education and mandated that they be placed in the least restrictive educational environment possible. Later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the policy sought drastic change to the educational opportunities for children with disabilities. Now, almost 40 years after the IDEA, have the educational opportunities expected been realized?
Children with disabilities growing up in the years prior to the IDEA experienced varied educational opportunities. The Federal government placed no requirements on schools to educate children with disabilities. Most states would not provide education to children who were deemed uneducable. The definition of uneducable was broad. According to an article published in the New York Times in 1955, children in New York with Intelligence Quotients below 50 are considered uneducable. Children with disabilities such a blindness and deafness were also deemed uneducable in some states. Children with extreme disabilities, such as those diagnosed as severely mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed were often sent to live in institutions. Tragically, some institutions were poorly funded, overcrowded, and ill-managed, and resulted in neglected, mistreated children.
The IDEA sought to educate children with disabilities to as great an extent as possible, in the regular classroom settings with their nondisabled peers. If the child’s needs could not be met in a regular classroom, even with additional aids and services provided, only then should consideration be given to placing the child in a separate class.
Fast-forward to today, and the educational opportunities for children with special needs are markedly better than the days before the IDEA. But, there are still hurdles to overcome. Looming federal financing cuts are threatening to affect the education of children with special needs. As federal and state financing sources disappear, the burden falls on local budgets. For most school districts, the cost –reducing options include reducing staff and increasing class sizes. It also means decreased budgets for professional development and assistive technology. While Republicans and Democrats argue over standardized testing and performance targets, teachers continue to try to educate children to the best of their ability, all while standing under a giant hammer threatening funding loss due to such high-stakes testing of students without regard to their disabilities, whether physical, mental, social, or environmental. In the end, something has to give, and education of special needs children, and of all children, will suffer.
Another issue affecting the educational opportunities of the child with special needs is the thought that by welcoming them into the regular classroom, the value of education received by their nondisabled peers is somehow lessened. Though prejudices will almost certainly continue to exist, educating the parents of both groups of children will help to ease the preconceived opinions, and provide a more healthy, inviting learning environment for all.
Randel C. Goad – Mandt Faculty Supervisor