The Big Idea behind IDEA

Whether you agree with the current direction of intervention, consultation, and education of students with special needs, the groundbreaking Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) that was enacted in 1975 made it possible for thousands of disabled and impaired students to to receive access to the same public education that non-disabled students had access to for decades. Seen as a way to bring equity to those students who were being treated unfairly by the public education system, the EAHCA  made it possible for many students that had thought to have been “un-educable” to attend public school, and prove that they were just as capable mentally as other students.

Why the history lesson? Because the EAHCA was reauthorized by Congress in 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and following subsequent amendments over the last 2 decades, has continued to play a large driving force in shaping modern education in the United States. And this year, the legislation is 35 years old! In 2008 alone, over 6 million students with some disability spent at least a partial day in a public school, a reality that might not have been possible 35 years ago.

One of the teachers in my district sent me a link to the video celebrating the hallmarks of the legislation, and I thought it would work well as a discussion starter with older students, or classrooms that have a large number of mainstreamed students; what would education today look like if almost 6 million students had no rights to be educated in our public schools? What if their families were forced to have to pay for private education, or other services that might come to the home? How would our lives be different, and how would students with disabilities be different?

I know 6 million students doesn’t mean they all receive intensive interventions and/or assistance. Many of them have mild disabilities that are easily remedied, but the questions are still valid. What’s the big idea about IDEA? What sort of issues would we have had to deal with today if “special schools” were still the prominent way of educating all students with disabilities, and not just the most intensive group? How have schools played a part in the acceptance of individuals with disabilities in our society as a whole? Would our culture be as accommodating and accessible if not for the many generations of students that were educated with disabled and impaired individuals around them every day? For that matter, how much further does our society need to go in order to better accommodate for individuals with impairments?

Have discussion questions of your own that come from the video below? Share them with your students, your colleagues, or here!


  1. As a Special Education teacher, I have been exposed to the wide variety of services offered to students with disabilities. I believe that it is a tremendous victory that such services are offered and available to a population of 6 million students. However, I believe that educators are ultimately responsible for how effective these services are. If the individuals offering these services, such as OT, PT, Special Ed teachers, etc are doing their job poorly these services are not effective and this population of students is not effectively served. These individuals have a serious responsibility to do their job effectively in order to help maximize the potential offered by this legislation.

  2. Thanks for a very informative and so very relevant post on the history of the education of disabled children and adults in the U.S and the significant changes which occurred after the passing of EAHCA in 1975. While I am not a special education teacher, both my sister-in-law and a good friend are, and I am always so inspired and moved by their passion, skills, patience and commitment to special education. My sister, a school psychologist in Orange County, Florida, works with children and families’ in the evaluation of children with learning disabilities and other handicaps so that they are appropriately placed in services within the public school system, which will more fully address their needs in an appropriate and supportive environment. The range of services available and the opportunities and outcomes it provides in terms of quality of life and educational achievement would not have been possible without the EAHCA and the IDEA and their amendments over the past 35 years. The video was very moving and clearly demonstrated that having these children, as they said “among us” not only provided greater access and opportunities for them, but allowed non-disabled children and other members of our society to accept, engage with and learn to appreciate the diversity of others. The “transition services” provision of IDEA was so significant in its focus on transitioning to higher education and employment of adults with disabilities and the amendments in 2004 which mandated that students with disabilities be included in the state accountability systems. Clearly, the most recent changes of the past decade have further improved the quality and accountability of special education services within the public education system! I was amazed to learn that by 2008, over 95% of children with disabilities were educated in local neighborhood and public schools and that enrollment rates for people with disabilities in two and four year colleges has more than doubled since 1993. I hope that all continue to believe and truly act on the belief, expressed by the narrator that “Each mind is beautiful, strength has many forms, and we are all able”. I will pass this post and video on to the wonderful special education teachers in my life!

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