Celebrating the 35th Anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Looking Back and Pressing Forward

November 29, 2010, marked the 35th anniversary of the law now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

To mark the anniversary, the Department of Education held a celebration on Capitol Hill featuring remarks by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, OSERS Assistant Secretary Alexa Posny, several members of Congress and White House Domestic Policy Advisor Melody Barnes.

But the highlight of the event were the young adults with disabilities who described the impact IDEA has had on their lives and how the supports they received under IDEA have helped them achieve high academic and professional goals. Sarah Helena Vazquez described how teachers in her New Jersey school helped her find her voice and her calling—becoming a disability advocate who speaks nationally and writes about growing up with cerebral palsy.

Haben Girma, the first deaf-blind student to attend Harvard Law School, recalled:

Since the special education teachers exposed us to so many alternative techniques, we developed a strong sense that an alternative technique can be developed for every goal. These teachers never gave me a second to wonder: Can a deaf-blind person ski? How does a blind person cook? They provided the answers to these small matters before I even thought to ask. So by the time I was ready to ask such questions, the only questions left were the big ones. Like, can a deaf-blind person get into Harvard Law School?

The current future of children with disabilities and their families stands in sharp contrast to conditions before IDEA.  In the last 35 years, IDEA has led to improved access, accountability and achievement for students with disabilities.  Classrooms have become more inclusive and the futures of children with disabilities are brighter.

But there is still work to do to fully realize IDEA’s promise. While outcomes for students with disabilities are rising, they are still too low. Districts and states have integrated special and general education programming at varied rates and levels of success. Highly effective special education teachers are in short supply and high demand. As a result, quality of services and educational attainment rates for students with disabilities remain disparate. As President Obama said in a statement released Monday, November 29, “Even as we celebrate children with disabilities and their parents, teachers, advocates and all who still strive to tear down the true barriers to success—even as we celebrate how far we’ve come—we commit ourselves to the ever-unfinished work of forming that more perfect union.”

View a video history of IDEA http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUn6luZQaXE.

Learn more about the IDEA 35 year anniversary celebration.

Find out more about IDEA and outcomes for students with disabilities.