Special education students have not always had the right to special education in the United States. Before 1961, kids with disabilities were not allowed to be publicly educated. If a child was deaf, blind, had cognitive or emotional disabilities, or anything similar, parents had to educate them at home or pay for private education.

To secure public education for their children, parents started creating advocacy groups. They arranged meetings with both teachers and politicians, and by 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson started signing off on various acts that were to provide free public education to students with special needs.

Today, children with disabilities can attend the same school and get the same public education as children without disabilities, thanks to all the hard work done by parents, politicians, and worthy teachers. Let’s now talk about the brief history of special education in the United States.

How it All Started

It all began in the 20th century. The parents of special need’s kids went on creating advocacy groups to help bring public education to children with special needs. These groups started slow but gained momentum during the mid-century.

President John F. Kennedy created the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation in 1961 that also recommended federal aid to states. Finally, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, which allowed funding for primary education.

Common Values in a Common School

During the 19th and the early 20th centuries, poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants migrated to the United States. American citizens feared that this diversity would bring class hatreds, crime, religious intolerance, and violence in the United States. Politicians and social leaders searched for many ways to get lower portions of the population on the same page as American citizens. They wanted the children to share the same values, so there wouldn’t be any social differences.

Horace Mann, an educational reformer, proposed a solution to all these social problems. He proposed that communities should establish common or public schools funded by tax money. He believed that when children belonging to different backgrounds, races, and religions were educated together, they would learn each other’s social values, accept, and respect them.

Common schools taught common values that included tolerance and self-discipline for others. However, for common schools to succeed in socializing children, it was important that all children attend school. Poor children attended school irregularly, quit early, or didn’t attend at all. Authorities of public school lobbied their legislatures and made it compulsory to attend school.

The compulsory attendance laws gave officials the authority even to prosecute parents legally if they didn’t send their children to school.

Timeline of Special Education in the USA (Important Events)


The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was reformulated as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). According to this act, children with disabilities were to be included in regular classes, and the rights to parents were also given to be involved in the education decisions. IDEA also required that an IEP be designed with the approval of parents to meet the special needs of their special children.


Finally, after the success of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and years of campaigning and lobbying, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. According to this act, people with disabilities were ensured to get equal treatment and access to employment opportunities and public accommodations. This marked a big step towards a good future for the United States and its citizens.

Moreover, the ADA was put in place to prohibit discrimination based on disability in employment, places of public accommodation, transportation, services rendered by state and local governments, and telecommunications services.


Reauthorization of IDEA happened this year. In addition to highlighting the rights outlined in previous legislation, this act emphasized academic outcomes for disabled students. Their focus was to raise expectations for students, support parents and students, and help states come up with appropriate outcomes.

Special Education Teaching Today

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) provided further accountability to schools in 2001 and 2004. Moreover, they added technical assistance and loan programs to assist schools to get special education resources.

The Learning Disabilities Association (LDA) that began as All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) played an important role in making sure that students with disabilities receive better public education. IDEA is updated every five years so that it can give LDA a chance to see how the law is working in practice and what changes are required to make the whole process smooth and better.

In the previous iteration (before 2004), schools waited for the child to fall behind grade levels to be eligible for special education. But after the modification in the law, it wasn’t compulsory anymore, and the schools could intervene more appropriately and find better ways to provide special education. Now that basic laws regarding disabled students are set in place, the advocacy groups that started in 1933 are working towards different goals. For instance, they are working to enhance the teaching methods and recognition of certain disabilities.

Thanks to the voice that people raised back then, now educators, lawmakers, and advocacy groups continue towards the betterment as a whole to streamline disability classifications.

Final Verdict

Although IDEA and EHA do not cover all children with disabilities, these two acts have been of great help in providing free public education to millions of disabled students who were never treated equally earlier. Before these acts were passed, both the children with disabilities and their parents faced a lot of hardships in society, especially when it was about public education.

Today, thanks to lawmakers and advocacy groups, children with disabilities receive their education in the same classrooms and schools with students who do not have disabilities.