Disability History Month Provides Opportunities for Reflection

A Brief Overview

  • October is Disability History Awareness Month, providing an opportunity for policy makers, teachers, families and people throughout communities to reflect on the disability rights movement and work that still needs advocacy.
  • State agencies collaborated to share biographical videos of middle-school students talking about their own diverse experiences with disability: One Out of Five: Disability History and Pride Project.
  • Understanding how historical actions have impacted the vocabulary of disability rights can help families in current advocacy. The ADA Legacy Project features specific “Moments in Disability History” with videos, articles and other archival materials.
  • This article highlights some key laws and legal actions that have impacted school access for students with disabilities.

Full Article

In the early part of the 20th century individuals with developmental, intellectual and other disabilities were often isolated from their communities and denied basic access to education. Many lived in large institutions, and it’s well known that those asylums were traumatizing for individuals and segregated them from their families. 

October is Disability History Awareness Month, providing an opportunity for policy makers, teachers, families and people throughout communities to reflect on the disability rights movement. Many agencies provide videos about disability history. Here is one 7-minute documentary that provides a summary of the eugenics* movement through current laws that protect rights for educational access: Disability Rights Activist Movement Documentary.

*Note: Eugenics involved the forced sterilization of individuals because of disability conditions. Parents may want to discuss topics in a developmentally appropriate way before sharing this or other historical information with children. An online children’s encyclopedia called Kiddle provides Eugenics Facts for Kids.

Washington State in 2008 passed a law that requires public schools to promote educational activities to enhance awareness of disabilities and the history of protections available to individuals with disabilities. A collection of historical biographies and artwork by school children is available online. The Revised Code of Washington (RCW 28A.230.158) includes this statement of findings:

“The legislature finds that annually recognizing disability history throughout our entire public educational system, from kindergarten through grade twelve and at our colleges and universities, during the month of October will help to increase awareness and understanding of the contributions that people with disabilities in our state, nation, and the world have made to our society. The legislature further finds that recognizing disability history will increase respect and promote acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities. The legislature further finds that recognizing disability history will inspire students with disabilities to feel a greater sense of pride, reduce harassment and bullying, and help keep students with disabilities in school.”

The Office of the Educational Ombuds (OEO), in collaboration with the Rooted in Rights documentary project that is part of Disability Rights Washington, created a set of biographical videos of middle-school students talking about their own diverse experiences with disability. Access the videos and other educational materials on OEO’s website under the project’s title: One Out of Five: Disability History and Pride Project.

“One out of five people in the United States has a disability, and this resource is designed to celebrate the history and identities within this large and diverse community,” OEO states on its introductory page for the project.

Note: OEO provides online resources and 1:1 support when special education issues are not resolved through collaboration. A PAVE article about conflict resolution describes OEO as one of the “Three O’s” that can assist families when there is a question about whether student rights are being upheld. OSPI and the Office for Civil Rights are the other two O’s.

Disability rights activities can be traced back hundreds of years. Diversity Inc provides a PDF timeline that starts in the mid-1700s, with information about early hospital wards for individuals with mental illness. A few key historical points of note on this extensive timeline include passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, the launching of Medicaid in 1965 and the 1978 founding of US Department of Education’s National Council on Disability.

Understanding how historical actions have impacted the vocabulary of disability rights can help families in current advocacy. In an article providing history about special education law, the US Department of Education includes data showing that in the early 1970s, public schools educated only one out of five children with disabilities. Even though civil rights laws had been written and enacted, many states still had laws rejecting children from schools because they were deaf, blind, emotionally disturbed, or intellectually disabled.

Parent Centers like PAVE, which began in 1979, participate in making sure that families and individuals understand disability rights and how history has impacted current protections and the language of disability rights. Please note that this article is an overview and does not include every law or legal action involved in the long and complicated history of disability rights.

1954​: Brown versus Topeka Board of Education​

  • Separate but Equal was outlawed, and Equal Educational Opportunities became a right of all citizens. ​

1964​: Civil Rights Act​

  • Prohibited state and local governments from denying access to public facilities, establishing equality as a legal right and discrimination as illegal.  
  • Desegregated public schools and authorized the U.S. Attorney General to file lawsuits for suspected violations. ​
  • Established that agencies could lose federal funding for breaking the law.

 1972: Key State Precedents

  1. P.A.R.C. v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania*
    • Established Free Public Education for all students.
  2. Mills versus Board of Education of DC 
    • Established accessible, free and suitable education for all children of school age, regardless of disability or impairment

In Pennsylvania parents led a class action suit that established that all children, regardless of their skill level, have a right to go to school for free. A few months later, a Washington, DC, court ruled that education should be free and accessible and “suitable.” These two cases set up the country to formalize the right of any student with a disability to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), which is the language of today’s law.

*Note: PAVE recognizes that past terms have led to stigma; using person-first language is our priority. To learn more about how individuals with intellectual disabilities earned education rights through these landmark cases, refer to Disability Justice.

1973: The Rehabilitation Act

The rights of a person with a disability to get the help they need in order to be successful in school and at work–and to access to any public place or program–was firmly established by the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is still an active law upheld by the Office for Civil Rights. Part of it, Section 504, defines disability as any impairment that significantly impacts a major life activity. When a student in school meets that criteria because of a physical or mental condition, the school is bound by this law to provide what a student needs to access FAPE.

1975: The Education for All Handicapped Children Act

  • Required public schools to provide equal access to free educational programming
  • Provided for evaluation, a specific educational plan and parent input
  • Declared that special education should emulate as closely as possible the educational experiences of non-disabled students
  • Contained a provision for education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
  • Provided dispute resolution procedures

In 1975 Congress passed the first federal law that was specific to the education of children with disabilities. The law used the word “emulate” to indicate that students with disabilities had the right to a school experience that would look as much like a typical student’s program as possible. The additional requirement for education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) further motivated schools to work harder to include students of many abilities in general education classrooms. This 1975 law also set up specific guidance for parents to take action if they disagree with the school. Parents are informed about their rights through the Procedural Safeguards that are provided at IEP and other official meetings.

1979: PAVE began as one of the country’s first parent centers

Pierce County was among six locations across the country to receive training in Special Education rights. Thirty Washington parents got trained about Special Education law in 1979. The goal was for those parents to share information throughout the state. To help this movement, a clearinghouse named Closer Look provided intense training for these pioneering parents about the laws. Closer Look evolved in the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY), and much of that work has been updated and preserved by the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR), the current technical assistance center for PAVE and other parent centers across the country. CPIR provides free information to professionals and parents through ParentCenterHub.org.

1990: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

  • Prohibits disability discrimination by federal and state government, including schools
  • Applies to all schools, workplaces—any space, public or private, that provides goods or services to the public
  • Covers people of all ages, including those who are discriminated against because they are perceived to have a disability, even if they don’t have one

Understood.org provides materials specifically designed for parents to provide basic understanding about ADA protections in schools. Included are printable fact sheets and instructions for filing formal complaints with various public agencies. Many ADA protections mirror those provided through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Key concepts in both are equity and access. The ADA and Section 504 protect a person throughout the lifespan. The Office for Civil Rights provides guidance for students with disabilities as they plan for higher education.

The Minnesota Council on Developmental Disabilities celebrates the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act with the ADA Legacy Project. To honor the contributions of individuals with disabilities and their allies who persevered in securing the passage of the ADA, the project features 31 specific “Moments in Disability History” with videos, articles and other archival materials:

“In order to fully realize a world where all people are accepted and valued, it is crucial to preserve and promote the history of the ADA and the disability rights movement.”

1990: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

  • All children with disabilities get a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)to be ready for further education, jobs and life! 
  • The rights of children with disabilities and their parents are protected. 
  • The law requires schools to asses a child’s program, to make sure it’s working, and the child is benefiting. 

When Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Act in 1990, the acronym FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) came into being. Now FAPE is key to this entitlement law. Entitlement means that a child with unique needs gets those needs served on an individual basis, not based on a system or program that’s already built and available.

The federal law drives how states design their own special education policies and procedures, which in our state are part of the Washington Administrative Codes (WACs). Title 34, Part 104, is the non-discrimination federal statute under the Office for Civil Rights Department of Education, and in Washington State rules for the provision of special education are in chapter 392-172A of the WAC. 

2004: IDEA Amendments

IDEA was amended by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. Several provisions aligned IDEA with the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Here are a few examples of updates:

  • IDEIA authorized 15 states to implement 3-year IEPs on a trial basis when parents continually agree. 
  • Drawing on the report of the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, the law revised the requirements for evaluating children with learning disabilities.
  • More concrete provisions relating to discipline of special education students were added. These are influencing current work to revise disciplinary standards in Washington State.
  • Students are entitled to education in regular classrooms, with needed supplementary aides and services, “to the maximum extent appropriate” under the principle of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)

2015: Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

  • Reauthorizes 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the nation’s national education law.
  • Provides all children in the United States the right to a free public education “to ensure that every child achieves.”
  • Advances equity by upholding critical protections for America’s disadvantaged and high-need students.
  • Requires—for the first time—that all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.
  • Ensures that vital information is provided to educators, families, students, and communities through annual statewide assessments that measure student progress toward high standards.
  • Encourages evidence-based interventions.
  • Sustains and expands access to high-quality preschool.
  • Maintains accountability in low-performing schools, where groups of students are not making progress and where graduation rates are low.

Legal actions influence ongoing changes

Special Education Law impacts what happens every day at school and with a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). A few prominent lawsuits have influenced the way special education laws are interpreted. Following are a few examples.

2000: Settlegoode v. Portland Public Schools

  • Appropriate staff training is an important aspect of FAPE.
  • School staff have the right to advocate for children without retaliation.
  • The lawsuit was filed by a former special education PE teacher who was fired after highlighting errors in IEP implementation.

2013: Doug C. v Hawaii

  • Parents must be included in the IEP process.
  • The lawsuit was filed in behalf of a parent who was not included in a school meeting at which key IEP decisions were made.

2017: Endrew F versus Douglas County School District

  • The Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that under the IDEA a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress, in light of the child’s circumstances of disability.
  • The “de minimis standard” is overruled; trivial progress isn’t enough.
  • Grade-level standards are prioritized.
  • Parent participation is emphasized

The Endrew F case is still being discussed by a variety of agencies, and many professionals from groups that oversee educational process are calling on parents to hold schools accountable to these new standards. Writing for the court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts said that trivial progress would no longer meet the standard of FAPE and that the IDEA aims for grade level advancement for children with disabilities who can be educated in the regular classroom. A child making trivial progress, he said, would be tantamount to “sitting idly … awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.”

Special education law continues to evolve

Interpretation of the IDEA continues to evolve as the US Department of Education creates documents to guide schools in how they understand and follow the law. “Dear Colleague” letters guide school staff to apply legal principles in daily practice. There are letters about IEP, FAPE, early learning, least restrictive environment (inclusion principles), alternative learning environments (such as Charter Schools), bullying and many more topics. Some letters review recent legal proceedings related to special education. For example, courts often discuss how schools are providing FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education), and their rulings further fine-tune how the schools are meeting their obligation to provide FAPE for students with identified disabilities. A library of these letters and other federal guidance and memos is available on the website of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP).