Students with Disabilities

Since the 1970s, the revolution in education for children with disabilities has resulted from advocacy, political pressure, and legislation—all of which shifted society's understanding of disability and the rights that people with disabilities demand as citizens.


Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a specific learning disability is defined as "...a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia." ( Code of Federal Regulations §300.7(c)(10) ).

Before 1975

Children with disabilities were generally shunned by local schools—and thus kept home or institutionalized—despite the 1917 federal law that required compulsory education for all children. Even as late as 1970, U.S. schools educated only one in five children with disabilities, and many states had laws that excluded certain students, including children who were deaf, blind, emotionally disturbed, or mentally retarded. While not addressing students with disabilities, certain landmark legislation laid the foundation for reform in this area. Key laws included the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1968, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, and the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) of 1968. In 1970, additional legislation (Title VI, ESEA, Education of the Handicapped Act) supported the growth of education aid for children with disabilities.

1975 - Present : Reform and Its Reauthorizations

1975 Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, guaranteed a free, appropriate public education to children with disabilities in every locality across the country. The law was reauthorized in 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Among the specific provisions:

  • State and local schools must provide substantial special education services to all children with disabilities.
  • Each child has the right to an Individualized Education Program (IEP) designed to meet his or her unique needs.
  • Each child's education must be provided in the least restrictive environment available.
  • Procedural safeguards guarantee the rights of each child and family.

The 1997 reauthorization of IDEA required that children with disabilities have access to the general curriculum. The 2004 reauthorization of IDEA promoted early assessment and intervention, rather than waiting for children to fail in school before diagnosing and addressing their learning disabilities.


Most children with disabilities now attend regular classrooms in their neighborhood schools with their non-disabled peers. High school graduation rates among youth with disabilities increased by 14 percent from 1984 to 1997. The percentage of college freshmen reporting disabilities has more than tripled since 1978.

Ongoing Issues

Because of several court actions, state and local communities provide the vast bulk of financial support for the special education needs of children with disabilities. The range of disabilities and the number of eligible students have expanded, creating budgetary crises in many districts.

Selected bibliography of published materials