The Education for All Handicapped Children Act: A Faltering Step Towards Integration

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Before 1975, public schools had few obligations to children with disabilities. The vast majority of children, especially those with severe disabilities, were kept out of the public schools and even those who did attend were largely segregated from their non-disabled peers. However, in 1975 this changed with the passage of The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-142), 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. This drastic change in federal policy towards disabled children raises the question: what factors led to the passage of the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act and what was its immediate impact on the educational experiences of disabled children in America?

It is important to recognize that the Act did not come out of nowhere. It was the logical result of a wave of activism that started after world war two and picked up steam during the 1960s and 70s. Though the civil right movement is mostly remembered for the rights that it brought racial minorities and women, it also created a movement demanding rights for those with disabilities. The act was brought on not just by public support, but also by legal pressure. Cases such as Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia forced the government’s hand. These Fourteenth Amendment cases affirmed the right of children with disabilities to have access to an education. However, while the Education for all handicapped children act was groundbreaking in terms of what it promised, even President Ford in his statement on the signing of the act acknowledged that; “this bill promises more than the Federal Government can deliver” (Ford). Indeed, the years immediately following the passage of the act were fraught with problems. While some advancements were made, there were problems with funding, conflicting state and federal regulations, and a general confusion over who was in charge of implementing the policies laid out in the act. In the years immediately following the passage of the act, disabled students did gain greater access to more inclusive education; they just did not receive all that the act promised to them.

The situation for children with disabilities before the passage of the act in 1975 was mixed but generally negative. The Federal government placed no requirements on schools to educate those with disabilities. In addition, until the mid 1970’s no state provided protections for all students with disabilities. In most states, school districts were allowed to refuse an education to any student deemed to be “uneducable” (Martin p.26). For example, New York State deemed all children with IQ quotients below 50 uneducable and simply permitted, but did not require, school boards to institute special classes for these children at their own discretion (Harrison). Students were also deemed to be uneducable for a wide variety of reasons not connected to their IQ such as blindness and mobility limitations. Students who were denied a public education were left with relatively few options. Some were lucky enough to be placed in specialized private schools. These institutions, many of which were charities, provided students with varying degrees of educational opportunities in a segregated environment. Many other children remained at home and received no education at all. Other children, especially those with more severe mental disabilities were institutionalized. (Winzer p.375-81). Even those disabled students that were admitted into public schools faced difficult circumstances. Schools that admitted these students generally followed one of two strategies. The first of these methods involved placing students in regular classrooms with no special assistance or accommodations. Unsurprisingly, most students struggled in this situation. A second strategy involved the creation of segregated special education classes that isolated disabled students from their able-bodied peers. These classrooms were widely criticized for a variety of reasons. They were commonly characterized by untrained teachers and substandard facilities. Many worried that these classrooms served only to isolate and stigmatize students, not to offer them the remedial support that they needed. Multiple studies found theses programs to be ineffective (Winzer p.379). The magnitude of problems facing America’s disabled students was fully realized in 1972 when a Congressional investigation revealed that 1.75 million children with disabilities were receiving no education, 200,000 were institutionalized, and an additional 2.5 million were receiving a substandard education (Chambers).

In 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act with the goal of remedying the serious educational inequalities represented by these numbers. The central principle of the act mandated that all states receiving federal education funding must create a “policy that assures all handicapped children the right to a free appropriate public education” (Bill Summary & Status). In addition, the act stipulated that all disabled students must undergo an individual evaluation leading to an Individualized Education Program (IEP) designed to create a personalized plan to best fit the educational needs of each student (Ibid). In addition, the act required that students be integrated into regular classrooms to the greatest degree possible and that they be placed in the least restrictive environment while at the same time being granted access to the extra help and services that they would need. Parents were also granted an avenue to dispute decisions made about their children’s educational placement. (Ibid). A quick comparison of what the act promised and the situation that existed at the time of its passage shows that what it proposed was extremely ambitious. By 1977, states were required to completely change the way that they approached handicapped children. If implemented as promised, the lives of these children would be transformed from isolation and neglect to inclusion and education.

This ambitious act did not come out of nowhere. In fact, it was the result of years of activism and legal action focused on improving the lives of disabled children. The movement towards the inclusion of disabled children and disabled adults is general picked up momentum after world war two. The war effort forced more disabled people into the workforce. This engagement with society at large increased the visibility of disabled people and changed public perceptions about their place. As a result, many prominent people began to push for better education for disabled children (Winzer p.375). However, it was the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s that provided the final push that led to public education for the disabled. While it is largely remembered as a movement that brought rights to African Americans and women, the civil rights movement advanced the rights of almost all oppressed minority groups. Margret Winzer writes that:

“The fervent egalitarianism and humanism of the 1960s created a wholly new climate for exceptionality. The deprived and oppressed, and those who saw themselves that way, became more militant, and the civil rights movement brought decisive action to improve the lot of blacks, of Chicanos, of women, and of the disabled” (Ibid p.376)

Though disabled people had been oppressed and denied an education for centuries, it was the 1960s that finally created a serious movement to change this practice. This movement was led by a variety of groups most notably the American Association on Mental Deficiency (AAMD) The association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) and the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities. These groups, often led by the parents of children with disabilities, led a strong push for equal education (Ibid p.376-78). The movement was also helped tremendously by President John F. Kennedy whose interest in confronting the problems faced by disabled children was in large part driven by the fact that he had a mentally disabled sister (Ibid p.376). In 1963, Kennedy established the Division of Handicapped Children and Youth and revitalized the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped. He sent missions to study international programs for disabled children and pushed for greater rights for the disabled, especially those with mental disabilities. Grassroots movements were instrumental in creating awareness of the inequalities facing the disabled but the movement also benefited greatly by having someone of Kennedy’s stature behind it.

Though the civil rights movement brought changes in public perceptions, the fight for equal educational rights saw its greatest victories in Federal court rather than the court of public opinion. In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Court had asserted the principle that all children deserve equal quality education. However, 15 years later, this principle had not been applied to the handicapped. However, in the early 1970s, a series of court opinions invalidated the practice of denying handicapped children of an education and, in a sense, forced Congress to Act.  One of the most important cases in this regard was Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania 343 F. Supp 279 (1972). This case challenged a Pennsylvania statute that required that all children attending Pennsylvania Public Schools to perform at a certain level. Those who did not perform at this level were deemed “unable to profit from… public school attendance” () and were not permitted to either start or continue to attend public schools. The plaintiffs in this case challenged the constitutionality of this statute on Fourteenth Amendment Grounds claiming that it denied disabled children of equal protection under the law. The case was settled with a consent agreement that schools may not “terminate or in any way deny access to a free public program of education and training to any mentally retarded child” (Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania p.27). This decision was later reinforced in a Federal jurisdiction in Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia 348 F. Supp. 866 (D.D.C. 1972). Therefore Congress was left with little choice but to pass this type of legislation. Despite all of the advocacy, it was legal judgments that finally led to the passage of such an act.

Even before the Act went into place, many expressed doubts that it could really deliver handicapped children the type of educational experience that it promised. Teachers unions were among the groups to voice the strongest opposition due to a mix of concerns. In a 1977 advertisement column in the New York Times taken out by the United Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, the president of the group, voiced displeasure with several aspects of the act. After giving general support for the principle that all students should receive an education, Shanker sought to explain to readers just how disabled some of the students that would soon be integrated were. In doing so, he highlighted some of the extreme examples such as: “Hydrocephalic children who were born with holes in their hearts, who turn blue periodically and have water on the brain and tubes in their heads which drain off the excess water” and “Children who still             need to be taught toilet training, self feeding and so forth” (Shanker). Shanker is certainly motivated to a certain extent by selfish reasons (the presence of disabled students does burden teachers to an extent) but he also anticipates the real challenges lying ahead. He then goes on to question the wisdom behind several key aspects of the act, especially that disabled students should be integrated to the greatest degree possible and that parents should be able to challenge their children’s placements: “No doubt many handicapped children belong in regular classes, but many do not. Under this law, almost all teachers will have handicapped children in their classes, but few have been trained to work with these children. Should the handicapped be taught by teachers who have not had such special training? Should the decision of the parent prevail over that of psychologists, the school principle, or previous teachers?” (Ibid). Shanker’s article, though self interested, rightly predicted that there would be problems implementing the act in such a short time, especially with the current funding and teacher training provided to local school districts.

In 1981, four years after implementation of the act began, the U.S Department of Education conducted a study of the implementation and impact of the act at the state level. The study sought to explain “why certain Federal and Congressional expectations are not being met” (United States p.2). The study found that many states were struggling to implement the mandates of the act. It found that State Education Agencies (SEA’s) were struggling mightily in there attempts to implement the supervisor provision of the law which required them to evaluate all programs for the deaf, blind and mentally retarded. The study found that attempts at implementation had resulted in “the allocation of a relatively high proportion of SEA resources, time, and effort which were only marginally effective in implementing the provision” (United States p.11). This ineffectiveness presented a clear issue. Not only were SEA’s spending a great deal of resources on trying to supervise and evaluate programs for disabled students; they were also doing a poor job. This meant that while many programs were being created, they were largely going unsupervised. This lack of supervision predictably led to uneven enforcement of the act and in many cases disabled children paid the price for this disorganization.

The fact that school systems were failing to meet the needs of disabled students was highlighted in 1980 by a report by the Education Advocates Coalition on Federal Compliance Activities to Implement the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. This report found that many students simply were not receiving the education promised to them by the Act. Most shockingly, according to the report, many children were in the exact same position they had been in before the passage of the act. It found that many handicapped children were still not receiving educational services and that of those that were, a large number had not received individualized evaluation or an individualized education program (IEP). In addition, many students were found to be unnecessarily segregated and those in regular classes were often without the extra services promised to them by the act (Education Advocates Coalition p.4-5).  The situations outlined in the report presented a major disappointment to disabled education advocates. Five years after the passage of the act, the lives of many handicapped children remained basically unchanged. The authors of the report deemed this situation to be:

“a national disgrace — a disgrace to the nation’s millions of handicapped children and their parents who rely on enforcement of PL 94-142 to provide for their children the opportunity to become independent, self-sufficient adults. It is also a violation of the trust of the United States Congress… And it is an affront to the nation’s taxpayers who will ultimately bear the expense of these children’s dependence and lack of skills”(Ibid p.5-6)

Despite these failures, many students did receive some benefits from the act. Though many disabled students did not receive all of the services promised to them, a large number did begin to move into public schooling and integrate into regular classrooms. According to the United States Department of Education, by 1984 fewer than 7 percent of all disabled students in the United States were being educated outside of public schools and two thirds of disabled children in public schools received at least part of their education in normal classrooms (Winzer p.382). This does not mean that all students were receiving individualized education programs or receiving all of the extra services that they needed. In fact, the individual situations of many disabled students may have changed for the worse as the moved away from specialized private learning environments into public school systems not fully prepared to teach them.

Today, though funding is still a major issue (Idea Reauthorization Quick Facts), public education is a given for all disabled students. The work of disability education advocates in the 1970s started a movement that completely changed the prospects for disabled children in America. Before the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, the majority of disabled children had no hope of receiving a free and appropriate education. Parents and other advocates of the rights of disabled students who fought against segregation and isolation in court could hardly have imagined the environment that is currently in place. However, that is not to say that the transition was seamless. The immediate impact of the bill was mixed. As many reports cited here indicate, implementing such an ambitious bill proved difficult and student experiences did not necessarily improve in the short term. However, the 1975 bill paved the way for important changes for millions of children. Though the mandates of the act were not immediately met, they provided goals that states could work towards achieving. By passing the Act, America stated its commitment to righting the educational inequalities facing the disabled. After that point, there was no going back to the dark past of isolation and exclusion.

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