Raising a child with special education needs is both challenging and rewarding. Each child is unique and requires an individualized strategy to help them succeed in a cookie-cutter educational climate. America’s history with special education is relatively short, but our country has come a long way in this area. 

Today, there are more students with learning disabilities than ever before. Marking an upward trend, the National Center for Education Statistics notes that the 2009-10 school year saw 6.5 million students enrolled in programs through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). That was 13% of public school students that year. In 2020, while overall public school enrollment was down by a full 3%, of all students enrolled in public education, 15% were eligible for and enrolled under IDEA. That means that in the fall of 2020, the public school system processed 7.2 million students with learning disabilities. 

Disability Scoop examines the specifics of the 2020 IDEA enrollment spike. “[T]he most common diagnosis was specific learning disability, which affected a third of students served under IDEA, followed by speech or language impairment and a classification known as ‘other health impairment.’ Autism affected 12% of students with disabilities, while 7% had developmental delay, 6% had intellectual disability, and 2% had multiple disabilities.”

Overall, the U.S. is seeing an upward trend in the necessity for programs such as those laid out with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, making special education a priority on the education front. By learning from our past, we can improve our future. So, how far back does education for America’s students with disabilities go? 

The Flashpoint

Special education can be traced back to the early 1800s in the U.S. In fact, the first school for disabled children, the American School for the Deaf, opened in 1817. (If you check out their website, you can find some old photos of the school and students of all ages. Old pictures of a past lifetime always fascinate, especially when they show history happening!)

The American School for the Deaf (ASD) is especially significant since it pioneered the way forward, opening the door for progress in this area. The school brought dignity and education to those with physical handicaps in a time when, at best, society often ignored the disabled. 

Over the next several decades, various schools emerged all over the country with missions  to serve America’s youth with disabilities. Educators founded additional schools for the deaf, schools for the blind, and other institutions for special education, bringing hope and knowledge to thousands of American students. 


While special education had begun in the early 1800s, higher learning, such as college or university, was still worlds away for students in the handicap arena. With no institutes for higher learning available to special needs students, obtaining a collegiate degree was just a fantasy.

In 1857, the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind opened its doors in Washington, DC. They offered primary education and moral training to the students in the DC area who were afflicted with blindness, the inability to speak, and deafness.

In 1864, the school expanded both its mission and its influence. The Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind opened Gallaudet University, the only college of its kind. 

“Gallaudet University, founded in 1864 as the National Deaf-Mute College, has been since its inception the only institution of higher learning in the United States devoted specifically to the education of the deaf,” Historic Sites notes. “The National Deaf-Mute College was an outgrowth of the Columbia Institution of the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind…The College opened in September of 1864 with 13 students.”

To date, Gallaudet University remains the only college dedicated to the deaf, blind, and mute communities. 

Parents Choose to Act

Between 1933 and the 1950s, parents of disabled students began speaking out en masse. Parent advocacy groups popped up all over the country as awareness of the sad state of special education gained more attention. 

In 1933, the cause got its first significant attention as the “Cuyahoga Council for Retarded Citizens” was founded. The first organized group of its kind, the council fought their point and succeeded. Preceden explains this small but significant victory. “A Parental Advocacy Group composed of five mothers of children with mental retardation… came to Cuyahoga, Ohio to protest their children’s exclusion from public schools. This led to the establishment of a special class for the children, even though the parents sponsored it.” 

By 1950, there were 88 such parental advocacy groups nationwide, each fighting tenaciously for their children. This was a major step toward true educational equality for special needs children in the U.S.


Not only were disabled and special needs students ignored by compulsory education laws, but when they attended school, they were in danger of being kicked out. 

One significant court case involved Merritt Bailey, a student with hearing loss, speech impairment, and a form of paralysis. In this definitive case, Beattie v. Board of Education Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school district, allowing the school to expel the student on the basis that his disabilities were a distraction to the class.

Historically, educating disabled and special needs students has not been a priority. In fact, in many cases, educating them appeared to be a fruitless endeavor. Recent history has changed this perspective and the practical outlook of special education. 

However, Brown v. Board of Education changed much on the legal scene for special education. The basis of the case was that no child should be segregated or denied education based on race. The court ruled in favor of Brown, legally ending racial segregation in schools. While this case had its roots in racial segregation, the impact of this landmark legal battle reverberated in other areas of education. 

Disability Justice notes, “This decision provided the constitutional foundation for parents of children with disabilities and disability rights activists to press for equal educational opportunities for all children, including those with developmental and other disabilities.”

Despite its racial roots, Brown v. Board of Education is heralded as a resounding victory for special needs students. However, it would still be an uphill battle for these families for years to come. 

Federal Funding

Historically, federal support and funding for special needs and disabled students were unreliable at best and practically nonexistent in reality. However, that changed in 1965 when President Johnson made good on his “War on Poverty.” 

Part of his plan involved federal aid for special needs students. State governments had the job of distributing the earmarked funds as they saw fit within their own education systems. This encouraged the expansion and growth of state departments of education and shaped the education system we are familiar with today. 

TimeToast notes that President Johnson’s plan, The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), sent funds to the states earmarked “for professional development, instructional materials, resources to support educational programs, and the promotion of parental involvement. An amendment to the law in 1966 provided funding specifically for students with disabilities.”

This step jump-started special education as we see it now. 

Parental Rights

In 1971 and 1972, two class-action lawsuits successfully gained ground for parents. In Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1971) and Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia (1972), parents were granted the right to be involved in educational placement decisions concerning their special needs or disabled children and also the rights to be notified of pending evaluations, placement, suspensions, and when services end. 

These rulings were significant for families nationwide. Parents were empowered to be involved in their children’s education and now had the legal ability to advocate for their children. 

Legally Protected

Despite the tremendous progress made toward equal education for disabled and special needs students, there were still no legal protections by law for these children. That changed in 1973. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 included Section 504. 

Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act was the first disability civil rights law in the U.S. Through Section 504, people with disabilities are protected against discrimination from federal financial assistance programs. It laid the foundation for the laws protecting and providing for disabled and special needs students today. 

The Modern Era

1975 brought sweeping progress to the cause of special education, which snowballed into what we see today. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act mandated that states receiving federal funds must provide equal access to education for children with disabilities, including one free meal per day. The following year an amendment was passed, establishing that families were entitled to the services from the child’s birth. 

Further parental involvement in their child’s IEP (Individual Education Plan) was established in 1986 through the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act, and in 1990 autism and traumatic brain injuries were added to eligible disability categories for the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. 

Later the same year, a new acronym became a staple in special education when President Clinton revised the name of The Education for all Handicapped Children’s Act to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The evolution of special education continued. 

By 2004, IDEA was amended once again, with Congress “calling for early intervention for students, greater accountability, and improved educational outcomes, and raised the standards for instructors who teach special education classes. It also required states to demand that local school districts shift up to 15% of their special education funds toward general education if it were determined that a disproportionate number of students from minority groups were placed in special education for reasons other than disability.”

Special Education Today

No system is ever perfect, but American special education has come a long way in 200 years. From the wholesale neglect and abuse of disabled and special needs children to offering individualized and specific education on a national scale, prioritization of and appreciation for these unique students have become a critical focus of our educational climate today—and rightfully so. 

As our country continues to build in this area of education, we look at our history to improve our future. Special education is a vital arena requiring constant advancement and continual development.

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