Nov 29

Happy 45th Birthday, IDEA!

A line of cupcakes with aquamarine frosting and sprinkles against a pink and blue background

This week, as we focus on gratitude, we’re also celebrating the 45th birthday of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Before this law was passed, students with disabilities had virtually no right to be educated in our nation’s public schools. With the passage of IDEA in 1975, Congress codified the inherent value and innate capabilities of all, requiring schools to provide a free, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment to all students. While there is certainly room for improvement in the education of students with disabilities, the foundational protections of IDEA have laid the groundwork to allow students to succeed in school alongside their peers.  

In honor of the over seven million students who currently qualify for educational services under IDEA, we wanted to share seven important facts about this life-changing piece of legislation:

  1. The law was originally known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act when it was signed into law by President Gerald Ford on November 29, 1975. 

  2. Prior to the passage of IDEA, many states had laws prohibiting children with some disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, emotional disturbance, hearing impairments, and vision impairments, from attending public schools. Instead, while only one-fifth of students with disabilities were enrolled in public schools, hundreds of thousands were committed to institutions, at which abuse was rife and no education was provided. 

  3. There are thirteen disability categories covered under IDEA (autism spectrum disorder, deaf-blindness, deafness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, orthopedic impairment, specific learning disability, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, visual impairment, other health impairment, and multiple disabilities) but states can include additional disabilities under state law. 

  4. IDEA is so powerful in part because it includes numerous provisions that empower parents to be actively involved in the process. It establishes parents as equal members of the team that determines the educational program for the student, requires parental consent for evaluations, and provides parents with a legal process to address grievances. 

  5. IDEA’s least restrictive environment (LRE) standard requires that, to the maximum extent appropriate for their needs, students with disabilities must be educated in the general education environment alongside their non-disabled peers.  The law specifies that “[s]pecial classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.” This requirement is backed by research showing that educating students with and without disabilities together produces better academic outcomes for both categories of students. 

  6. To qualify for special education and related services under IDEA, students must have a qualifying disability and their educational performance must be “adversely affected” by the disability. If the student’s team (which includes the parents) determines there is no adverse effect, the student does not qualify for special education but might still qualify for special considerations under other laws that protect the civil rights of students with disabilities. 

  7. Although many people think students with disabilities cannot perform at grade level, research shows that the vast majority (80-85 percent) can meet the same achievement standards as other students if they are given specially designed instruction and appropriate access, supports, and accommodations as required by IDEA.  

The Center wants to send a special thank you to the educators, parents, policymakers, and students who have honored and embodied the spirit of IDEA for these past 45 years. Happy, happy birthday, IDEA!!