What exactly is special education? Special education features instruction and interventions designed to meet the individual needs of each child with a disability. While this doesn’t seem like such a dramatic idea to us now, it is fairly new. In fact, in 1975, the U.S. Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. This landmark law – together with subsequent amendments in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – protects the rights of infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities and their families.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, “Before IDEA, too many children were denied access to education and opportunities to learn. Providing appropriate education to youngsters from diverse cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds was especially challenging. Further, most families were not afforded the opportunity to be involved in planning or placement decisions regarding their children, and resources were not available to enable children with significant disabilities to live at home and receive an education at neighborhood schools in their community.”

The IDEA has four main purposes:

  • “to assure that all children with disabilities have available to them … a free appropriate public education which emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs
  • to assure that the rights of children with disabilities and their parents … are protected
  • to assist States and localities to provide for the education of all children with disabilities
  • to assess and assure the effectiveness of efforts to educate all children with disabilities”

In just 40 years, these laws helped to develop an infrastructure of supports that are improving the lives of millions of children with disabilities. Consider the following examples of our country’s accomplishments since enactment of the law.

  • More young children with disabilities receive high-quality early interventions that prevent or reduce the future need for services.
  • More children with disabilities attend their local schools, with many attending general education classrooms for at least part of the day.
  • More youth with disabilities graduate from high school. In the ten years between 1997 and 2007, the percentage of students with disabilities who dropped out of high school decreased 21 points.
  • More youth with disabilities attend college, with the rate of college-bound teens with disabilities increased from 14.6 percent in 1987 to 31.9 percent in 2005.

As we think about and celebrate the successes of special education, we must continue to advocate for the needs of all children. Easter Seals is proud to be a partner for families with children with special needs. Not only do we provide programs, services and resources for families, we also advocate for the rights for everyone to learn, live and play in our community.


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