Evolution of Policy in the History of Disability Rights in Education

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Various works within disability research have examined the dishonorable treatment of students with cognitive impairments in the U.S. Through addressing the history of disability advocacy, the progress of societal attitudes and perceptions of those with intellectual ailments, as well as the establishment of legal rights, the dire need to minimize barriers and promote equality for students of all abilities is foregrounded.

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Disability has a history that is as prolonged as the history of humankind.1 Despite the educational injustices that students with intellectual disabilities face in the present day, the U.S. has come a long way in the advancement of accommodations for cognitively impaired students and the integration of all individuals learning with ailments. Michael Wehmeyer, Director and Senior Scientist of the Beach Center on Disability at the University of Kansas, and J. David Smith of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro present a historical analysis of the development of shifting attitudes toward individuals with disabilities. It was not until the mid-eighteenth century that European philosophers enforced equal rights for all, including individuals with disabilities, as citizens with disabilities were previously categorized as inferior beings who lacked rights and privileges. This “European Enlightenment” teaching was further developed and adopted by other countries, including the U.S. In 1817, establishments for the care of disabled citizens were built through this institutionalization, causing further discrimination and unjust treatment. Later in 1972, the district court of Pennsylvania ruled denying “mentally retarded” students access to free public education a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, therefore, guaranteeing access to free public education for students of all abilities between the ages of 6 and 21. This advancement compelled academic systems to open their doors for all students while enforcing civil rights laws.2 Collectively, these acts of advocacy for individuals of all abilities led to the enactment of the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act (EHA) of 1975, which was reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).3 These movements advanced the status of all individuals with disabilities in America which has led to the valid classification and increased recognition of the needs of students with hindered cognitive functioning.


Society’s conceptions of disability have differed between qualitative and quantitative understandings throughout time. The qualitative framework proposes individuals with disabilities as different, deviant, and abnormal, while the quantitative framework views disabilities “as a matter of degree” and the individuals who assume them to progress at slower rates and experience barriers to achievement.4 These alternating qualitative and quantitative conceptions are apparent within each historical era of the evolution of intellectual disability and continue to influence how societies view and accommodate individuals with cognitive impairments.

The definitions and classifications of students with intellectual disabilities have been historically inconsistent, sparking controversies regarding public perceptions of individuals with cognitive ailments as well as criteria for diagnosis and care. Intellectual disabilities, formally labeled by the outdated terms of mental retardation and mental handicap, were initially considered spiritual acts of punishment prior to the knowledge of medical causes. During this period, the public rejected individuals with cognitive impairments viewing them as helpless objects in need of treatment.5 Although this awareness was an advancement from previous centuries in which those with intellectual disabilities were persecuted; it prompted the unjust stigma and rejection associated with bearing the label of mentally retarded. The current definition of the term intellectual disability, as adopted by government institutions, international organizations, and advocacy groups, is a “developmental condition that is characterized by significant deficits in both intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior, including conceptual, social, and practical skills.” 6 Though this definition is considered socially and politically correct and is a progression from inhumane historical classifications; debates persist that have negative implications on the accommodation and categorization of persons with intellectual disabilities. Disability studies scholars observe that disability is commonly understood as a medical “problem” that demands to be cured and is a cause for regret and sympathy.7 This interpretation of intellectual disabilities understood solely as health conditions risk the current customary classification of disabilities being replaced, causing reevaluations of the aid provided by social and educational services as well as drawbacks in the advancement of public perceptions and protective legal legislation.8 Contrary to this dominant belief, disability studies scholars argue that disability is a “mode of human difference” which acts as a disadvantage only when the context or environment addresses it as such.9 This conceptualization of intellectual differences as “disabilities” may restrict individuals from gaining access to mental health-related services regarding treatment for symptoms of impaired cognitive functioning.10 While altering public perceptions and the legitimacy of stratifications, these varying labels are subjective and stigmatizing.11 Intellect is best understood in terms of variety and uniqueness rather than deviants from norms and social constructs; therefore, disability is best understood as an individualized marker of identity rather than a defect or flaw.12

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The transition in terminology to arrive at the term intellectual disability and the progression in the classification of cognitive disorders within the social construct of disability have advanced alongside the evolution of federal disability legislation. Federal acts have been signed into law to set regulations for, protect the rights of, and ensure equitable outcomes for all individuals within the spectrum of disability. International legislation that enforced a duty upon states to maintain the rights of citizens with disabilities began with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This act prohibited discrimination in demanding accommodations for persons with disabilities within programs receiving federal financial assistance, including employment agencies and higher education institutions. Congress then passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) of 1975 which sought to improve the varying standards for educating children with disabilities. States were ordered to guarantee that all public schools provided a “free, appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment” to students with ailments. The EHA brought approximately 1 million children with disabilities into public education systems that had previously explicitly excluded students with certain disabilities from receiving equal educational services.13 As technology advanced and the awareness of its potential as a tool to assist individuals with disabilities increased, Congress launched the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities (AT) Act in 1988. The purpose of the AT Act was to secure financing in support of technology-related services to accommodate citizens with disabilities.14 Next came the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law that further prohibited the discrimination of disabilities, specifically in areas of employment, transportation, public accommodation, and government services. This 1990 act enforced the use of accessibility designs such as wheelchair ramps and closed captions15 while affirming that students with disabilities were entitled to not merely fair treatment but equal opportunities.16 The year 1990 also brought the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which required free appropriate public education to be made available to all eligible children in the least restrictive environment with attention to individual needs. This law has since been amended periodically with its most recent advancement being the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) of 2004.17 In amending previous acts, Congress shifted the primary focus of measuring equal opportunities from access to quality with the IDEA and its revisions.18 During the reauthorizations of the IDEA, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush.19 By expanding on pivotal education reforms, the NCLB Act outlined requirements for state academic standards and performance objectives of curricula which included the employment of highly qualified administrators and teachers and the use of data-driven decisions as fundamental parts of equal educational systems.20 Finally, on December 10, 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law, replacing the NCLB Act. The ESSA permitted states to modify academic standards for students with severe intellectual disabilities, required assessments that more accurately measured students’ progress, and enforced evidence-based teaching strategies while expanding these provisions to societal levels and higher education preparation services.21 Intellectual disabilities are one of the many impairments covered under these legislative acts. The additions of new acts and provisions to existing regulations have significantly improved the inclusion, perception, and treatment of students with intellectual disabilities enrolled in all levels of education.

These students can obtain multiple enrollment and employment opportunities with the National Pardon strategy with professional licenses through the government. Students suffering from a disability can get enough education to make a successful career and improve their lifestyle.

Along with the employment opportunities, this strategy will help you to improve the state of the economy that enables disabled students to obtain the ability to volunteer in certain situations with the great evolution of disability rights in education.

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Despite historical awareness, evolving perceptions, political advancements, and social controversies, students’ educational experiences with mental disabilities in America require further reformation. As demonstrated through this analysis of the evolution of federal disability legislation and perceptions towards intellectual disability within education, students with cognitive ailments are entitled to and, more importantly, deserve equitable consideration. Though commendable strides have been taken to overcome barriers to inclusive education, an ongoing need to promote the integration and just treatment of students with cognitive impairments persists.



  1. Winzer, M. A., “From Integration to Inclusion: A History of Special Education in the20th Century”, Gallaudet University Press, (2014), 1.
  2. Wehmeyer, M. L., & Smith, J. D., “Historical understandings of intellectual disability and the emergence of special education”, In M. L. Wehmeyer & K. A. Shogren (Eds.), Handbook of research-based practices for educating students with intellectual Disability, Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, (2017), 208.
  3. Ibid., 209.
  4. Spaulding, L. S., & Pratt, S. M., “A Review and Analysis of the History of Special Education and Disability Advocacy in the United States”, American Educational History Journal, 42(1/2), (2015), 91–109.
  5. MentalHelp, “Social and Political Controversies Associated with Intellectual Disabilities”, (n.d.), www.mentalhelp.net/intellectual-disorders/social-and-political-controversies/.
  6. Tassé, M. J., “Defining intellectual disability: Finally we all agree. Almost. Spotlight on Disability”, (2016), http://www.apa.org/pi/disability/resources/publications/newsletter/2016/09/intellectual-disability.
  7. Price, M., “Mad at school: rhetorics of mental disability and academic life”, University of Michigan Press, (2014), 4.
  8. Bertelli, M.O., Munir, K., Harris, J. and Salvador-Carulla, L., “Intellectual developmental disorders”: reflections on the international consensus document for redefining “mental retardation-intellectual disability” in ICD-11, Advances in Mental Health and Intellectual Disabilities, Vol. 10 no. 1, 36-58, (2016), https://doi.org/10.1108/AMHID-10-2015-0050.
  9. Price, M., “Mad at school”, 4.
  10. Bertelli, M.O., Munir, K., Harris, J. and Salvador-Carulla, L., “Intellectual developmental disorders”.
  11. Shifrer, Dara, “Learning Disabilities and Inequality”, Sociology Compass, (2013), 662.
  12. Price, M., “Mad at school”, 4.
  13. Sack, J. L., “IDEA opens doors, fans controversy”, Education Week, 20 (13), 1–27, (2000).
  14. Wehmeyer, M. L., & Smith, J. D., “Historical understandings of intellectual disability”, 211.
  15. Ibid., 213.
  16. Long, C., “Opportunities Made Equal: Accommodating Students with Learning Disabilities”, Academe, 83(3), 50, (1997), doi:10.2307/40251094.
  17. Nufeld, J. C., “No Child Left Behind and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Acts: Their effects on the academic success of minority learning disabled students in Arizona” [ProQuest Information & Learning]. In Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences (Vol. 70, Issue 5–A), (2009), 14
  18. Sack, J. L., “IDEA opens doors, fans controversy”, Education Week, 20 (13), 1–27, (2000).
  19. Nufeld, J. C., “No Child Left Behind and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Acts”, 1.
  20. Ibid., 3.
  21. Wehmeyer, M. L., & Smith, J. D., “Historical understandings of intellectual disability”, 210.



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