Special Education: The 50-Year Fight for the Right to Learn

Today’s special education system was shaped five decades ago, when parents of children with disabilities fought for their right to learn.
By Karen M. Sughrue

Schools across the nation have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, leaving millions of students behind academically. The burden of the disruptions has fallen especially heavily on students with special needs – those who, under federal law, are entitled to services most often provided in person, like language therapy, physical therapy and one-to-one instruction.

“If we know general education children are suffering, then there’s no doubt in our minds that students with disabilities are struggling even more,” Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, told Retro Report.

The right to special education services was hard won 50 years ago by parents whose children were often denied the right to go to school at all. Decades ago, children with disabilities were routinely barred from attending public school on the basis of IQ. Instead, many were locked away in residential institutions known as state schools.

After horrific conditions at one such institution were uncovered by a Philadelphia television journalist in 1968, parents joined forces in the fight to grant children with disabilities the right to attend public schools.

Their 1971 lawsuit ended with a landmark decree: Schools today are required by law to provide “a free appropriate public education” to children with all levels of disabilities, at a cost of tens of billions a year. But the pandemic has highlighted chronic problems: a shortage of trained teachers, and an unfair distribution of resources to students of color and those in low-income neighborhoods.

“It’s not as easy as it should be for parents to be able to get what they need for their children in regards to special education services,” Ms. Ansari told us.

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