Celebrating 40 Years of IDEA

This month, our nation marks the 40th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), signed by President Gerald Ford.

This law represents a landmark civil rights measure that has helped to give all children the opportunity to develop their talents and contribute to their communities. IDEA opened the doors of public schools to millions of children with disabilities.

Before the law was passed, children with disabilities in this country were not guaranteed equal access to a quality education. More than 40 years ago, nearly 1.8 million children with disabilities were excluded from public schools. In 1970, just five years before IDEA was enacted, only one in five children with disabilities had access to a quality education. In some states, many students with both physical and mental disabilities were denied an education—essentially shut out of classrooms across the country.

Education for students, including students with disabilities, has improved significantly since that time. Classrooms have become more inclusive and the future for children with disabilities is brighter. Significant progress has been made toward protecting the rights of, meeting the individual needs of, and improving educational results for students with disabilities.

Today, nearly 62 percent of students with disabilities are in general education classrooms. Early intervention services are now being provided to more than 340,000 infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. Before IDEA, these services were not always available. Today, over 6.9 million students with disabilities have access to special education and related services. These services are often designed specifically for students to meet their unique needs.

While tremendous progress has been made over the years, we must continue the hard work to address the challenges that still exist. Although we are able to help many individual students to achieve their goals, we must continue to work at ensuring that all children have the supports they need and to find ways to ensure they can reach their full potential.

For more information, visit the Department’s new website featuring resources developed by our grantees, instructional best practices, assessments, and information on student engagement, school climate, home and school partnerships, and post-school transitions for students with disabilities.

Hannah Smith is an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education and a Senior a the University of Missouri.


  1. IDEA is like an unrequited love. So much hope, so many dreams. All mostly dashed and dismissed. School districts across this land refuse to do the hard work of identifying all students with disabilities requiring special education services, training teachers to address their needs, implementing evidence-based programs with fidelity measuring progress and adjusting teaching as required along the journey in classrooms and implementing and designing individualized education programs for children with mainly neurological differences to which special education services should be the focus. There is no accountability or evidence of student achievement in spite of billions haven’t been spent. Students with specific learning disabilities are placed in special-education almost wholesale incorrectly, absorbing resources that make no sense to be used in this way. General education has failed to teach children to read. Teachers are not trained to either identify students with dyslexia and other language based disabilities or to teach those with those differences how to read, the majority of students referred to special education. By any metrics, idea and it’s implementation have been a failure. Time for the rights of these children to be fought for, just like all other groups fighting for their civil rights have done. Be ready, we are gathering, we are knowledgeable and we aren’t going to take it anymore for our kids.

  2. WHO ARE YOU KIDDING?! Special education is an abolute disaster! Schools still do what they want, when they want, they get a slap on the hand when they are out of compliance; districts give children minimum or even no accomodations to help them succeed, then do not even monitor their progress; and when parents ask for proof of progress, they fight them or make excuses. Parents are going broke paying advocates or lawyers while children are being damaged developmentally. Parents are suffering psychologically, emotionally, and financially. . There is NOTHING to celebrate about the IDEA turning forty. How about REVAMPING the law and holding states and districts accountable? How about assuring that this law is actually HELPING children, and not harming them? How about getting your head out of the sand and acknowledging that Special Education in America is severely flawed and even harmful? WAKE UP!

    • You hit the nail on the head! I don’t understand how our government special education people earn their pay.

      Now the Feds have issued a new Dear Colleague letter that explains that all IEPs must be at grade level for disabled students. That’s all well and good, but I’d rather see manpower go towards enforcement of the law rather than writing more ignored letters.

      They are asking for comments about the letter. Here is the email address: iepgoals@ed.gov I’ve sent them my two cents. Spread the word.

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