Special Education: Changes Over the Years

Jay Phelps

Only recently, in the last few decades, has special education been a top priority to those seeking its need.

The uprise of the issue started after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. The case fought segregation for the integration of black children learning in the same environment as white children.

After the decision in Brown, lawsuits were brought upon the court for schools districts excluding children with disabilities. Parents of the children argued that by the school districts excluding children with special needs was discriminating against their abilities. The lawsuits were the result of the question, “is segregation in schools solely based on race?”

The start of improving disability education wasn’t paid enough attention to. Before the issue was brought to attention, most children struggling with a disability or disadvantage were either homeschooled, received zero education, or were institutionalized. Although acts started to take place in 1966, disabled children were either excluded from schools or the children would all be grouped together in a generic special education class.

Disabled children were perceived as undesirable and therefore segregated in classrooms in undesirable places away from the “normal” children. Special education classes were held in the at most horrible places such as dirty trailers and school basements. It’s clear to see that the lack of resources and unstable environments provided to the children were of no benefit to their learning.

Strict attendance laws were the same for “normal” and special needs children. Despite the attendance laws, a majority of the states allowed for the school authorities to exclude the disabled children from their learning if they observed the child and saw no improvements in their learning or were disruptive to to non-disabled children and teachers.

For those who have encountered a special needs child, it’s obvious to notice that disabled children have sporadic behaviors that can, most of the time, not be contained or controlled, hence their disability. With common sense it’s easy to know patience is key with special needs. By excluding these children, they were given no chance and no hope. With no encouragement or patience, it’s inevitable that these children were experiencing a false education.  

With no real system for improving in place, educators and legislation initially gave up on the idea of adequately equalizing the proper education for the disadvantaged. Starting in 1958, the Illinois Supreme Court withheld the compulsory education laws from mentally impaired students.

With other states following in Illinois’s footsteps, states like North Carolina seized to create a law and making it illegal to enroll disabled students in school after they had been previously excluded. This was considered a crime all the way until 1969. Furthermore, it wasn’t until the late 1970’s to 1980’s that special education was revisited and a new law was created.

The foundations of today’s special education passed a law in 1975. The law was then further enacted in 1977, calling it The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (EHA). The law introduced five concepts being: free appropriate public education (FAPE) for children 3 to 21 years old; protecting the rights of children with disabilities and their parents including due process rights; an individualized education program (IEP); a least restrictive environment (LRE); and Assisting States and localities to provide with the education to all children with disabilities through federal funding.

Congress enacted the EHA on November 19 of 1975,  with the repeated intentions that all children with a disability would  “have a right to education, and to establish a process by which State and local educational agencies may be held accountable for providing educational services for all handicapped children.”

Learning from past mistakes, Congress created a set of guidelines that included regular inspections ensuring education needs were met.

On top of this the law included some checks and balances also called “procedural safeguards” that made sure to protect not only students but also their parents. Since this law was passed there has not been as much attention on special education law, but in 2004 the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act was passed. This was the cherry on top for special education as it went past school and made efforts to support students with disabilities outside of the classroom.

Donna Malone is a middle school special education teacher at New Berlin West. She has a first hand experience with seeing the changes of special education programs and teachings over the years. She has worked at West for 18 years now. Her specialty is co-teaching English.

Being a co-teacher means there are two teachers in the room, benefitting the student. She modifies the curriculum to take it accessible to all students.

”If we have a student in the room that has a reading disability. I may suggest using technology, finding the same reading at the student’s reading level, incorporating visualization into the lesson or using a learning modality which I know that student has strength in,” Malone explained.

Modifying lessons to meet the students needs while maintaining the learning process is a big step compared to a decade or two ago.

“Back then (in the late 80’s) special education kids were primarily taught in what is called a resource room,” Malone said, “they were far more segregated from the general population and this was just not a good thing for many reasons.”

Resource rooms were essentially rooms held in basements, or in other cases, trailers outside of the school building. These conditions were not suitable for a learning environment. Special education teachers were more like babysitters than teachers, the children were not learning.

“If they were mainstreamed in the general population it was for art, music, or PE class, rarely a core area.”

Unlike a decade ago, students are now scheduled into regular classes and are learning a lot more. Though this model is better, it’s still seeking improvements.

Malone explains, “we need to continue to close the gap academically. We cannot afford to have certain subgroups of students, whether that be special ed kids, kids with tough family situations, students from different racial backgrounds etc… there should not be a “privileged” group in our society or any society.”


From an education standpoint for everyone, Malone says, “Education should not be politicalized. It benefits everyone if all students are educated and they reach their highest potential. We need to put money into education. We either invest in the future or we will be grappling with it.”

As a society, we are constantly changing. With learning from past mistakes, we can only improve the future.

“I feel hope regarding the future,” Malone says, “I see kids taking on societies issues and making a difference… I know as our students continue to grow they will make this world a better place and I can hardly wait to see how the world will change because of them.”

“That’s why I know I have one of the most important jobs in the world because hopefully through my teaching I can influence all students to be problem-solvers, empathetic, risk-takers, and ready to take on the world.”