The story actual begins with the landmark 1954 Supreme Court Case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which dealt with the segregation of schools by race. Attorneys who argued on behalf of Linda Brown and almost 200 other students of color included future Supreme Court Justice Thurmond Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the nation’s highest court. The Supreme Court decision in the Brown case determined that ‘separate but equal’ education based upon race was a violation of the Constitution —establishing the principle that access to public education is a right that must be made available to all on equal terms. The eventual impact of this decision went far beyond declaring the illegality of excluding students from schools because of their race.
A series of local court cases that followed went on to extend the ruling in Brown and look at students who were excluded from public education because of their disabilities. Adding to the public awareness raised by the cases that followed Brown, were revelations by a young television journalist, Geraldo Rivera (yes, that Geraldo Rivera) of horrific conditions at the Willowbrook State School in New York. Rivera’s 1972 award winning exposé featured hidden cameras showing how more than 6,000 developmentally disabled children and adults lived in a facility designed for 4,000. By using the power and reach of television, the Willowbrook story helped bring the issue of how individuals with profound disabilities were denied decent care—let alone education—to the attention of the American public.
In the mid-1970s, when Congress began looking at how the nation’s eight million children with disabilities were being educated, they found that more than half were not receiving appropriate educational services and at least one million were excluded from school completely.
It was against this backdrop that the legislation that became the IDEA -- the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act -- was first created. There's more to this story, of course, and we'll look in future blogs at the individuals behind the key court cases that established the principles that are fundamental to the IDEA today.