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Brief History of Educating Students With Disabilities

By Stephanie Torreno

Inclusion has moved students with disabilities from separate special education classes into general education environments to learn with their peers. Read this article for a glimpse into changes regarding understanding these students.

The education of students with disabilities has undergone major transformations in recent decades. Once excluded from the public Special Education Classroom school system, children with disabilities began to be taught in special education classes. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and its amendments of 1986 and 1992 first began guaranteeing the educational rights of individuals from institutions receiving federal funding. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) then required that education be provided in the least restrictive environment in general education classes. IDEA’s reauthorization in 1997 further increased access to education for students with disabilities. Finally, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), made law in 2002, mandated that student performance be broken down into categories, including race and disability, and pushed for improved student outcomes.

A Shift of Expectations

With the influence of IDEA and NCLB, expectations have changed regarding students with disabilities. Students now have much higher expectations and improved academic outcomes. These outcomes include decreasing the number of students with disabilities who drop out of high school, increasing the number of these students who graduate with a diploma rather than a certificate of attendance, and improving students’ transition to and graduation from postsecondary education. Improved outcomes are also measured by adequate yearly progress (AYP). With most students now being counted in the measure of AYP, educators must be concerned with the quality of treatment and education of students with disabilities.

Changes in thinking and attitudes toward students with disabilities have come from increased dialog among policymakers, researchers, and educators. These changes include the belief that all students should be held to the same standards. Due to NCLB, many students with disabilities are now being included in standards-based curricula and assessments. Accommodations and needed supports assist these students in meeting these standards and the rigors of the general education curriculum.

Integration now the Norm

IDEA has changed the learning environment in which students with disabilities meet the standards of general education curriculum. Instead of being educated in separate classes by special education teachers, students with various disabilities now learn in general classrooms with access to modifications and accommodations. Increased collaboration among special education teachers, general educators, and inclusion specialists has provided access to the general curriculum. General educators are now learning how to adapt teaching methods and classroom activities to meet the needs of diverse learners.

In recent decades, educators have begun to think of these students as being capable of meeting high academic standards and learning in the general classroom with necessary accommodations and supports. While these changes have been fundamental and deep, further changes in thinking and attitudes are needed for all students to meet expectations of high academic standards. Most changes in attitudes and beliefs are met with difficulties, however, we are hopeful for a brighter future than every for students with special needs.