History of laws protecting students with disabilities
The American School for the Deaf, or ASD, America’s oldest permanent school for the deaf, represents one of the first attempts to recognize the needs of students with disabilities.
Gallaudet would later have the first university for the deaf named after him, which was initially chartered by Congress in 1857 as the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind, according to historical documents.
Despite the creation of these schools, however, disabled students remained largely at a disadvantage, segregated and treated unfairly by their contemporaries for decades to come.
Treatment of those with other disabilities, especially of a cognitive nature, was cruel and discriminatory, according to past studies.
A 2011 report stated that North Carolina laws inspired by the eugenics movement deemed thousands of disabled men, women and children unfit for reproduction and forcibly sterilized, which continued until 1974.
Attitudes began to slowly change after America’s veterans began to come home from World War I, many disabled or disfigured from years of trench warfare that left hundreds of thousands wounded.
In the 20th century, after each of the world wars, Congress made a pair of efforts aimed at drawing attention to the struggles of disabled Americans: In 1918, the Smith-Sears Veterans Rehabilitation Act provided services for the vocational rehabilitation of veterans; and in 1945, President Harry Truman signed legislation that created National Employ the Handicapped Week.
However, both of these efforts were only rehabilitative measures for the physically impaired. (In 1988, an act of Congress later named October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month.)
In 1954, another measure again aimed only at those with physical disabilities, was the Vocational Rehabilitation Act. The law, signed by President Dwight Eisenhower, represented the first real overhaul of vocational training for the physically disabled in more than a decade.
This same year, the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling declared segregated schools unconstitutional, giving momentum to the civil rights movement, as well as the cause of the disabled.
Many suffering from mental illness were institutionalized, often with inadequate care, until a judge presiding over the Wyatt v. Stickney case created minimum standards for the treatment of mental health patients in 1972. His ruling mandated the provision of a “realistic opportunity to be cured or to improve his or her mental condition,” at state institutions.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and specifically, Section 504, addressed discrimination against the disabled and set the stage for the monumental change that has taken place since. Two years later, Congress passed the Developmentally Disabled Assistance and Bill of Rights Act and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHCA).
Also in 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in O’Connor v. Donaldson, stated a person cannot be institutionalized against their will in a psychiatric hospital unless they are determined to be a threat to themselves or others.
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law, and the EHCA was amended and renamed Individuals with Disabilities; Education Act (IDEA).
The ADA is the strongest legislation in the history of advocacy for the disabled and bestowed full citizenship on the disabled.
This law, and its subsequent revisions, are the basis today for many of the provisions guaranteed to millions of disabled students at elementaries, high schools and colleges across the country.