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Journal Issue: Special Education for Students with Disabilities Volume 6 Number 1 Spring 1996

The Legislative and Litigation History of Special Education
Edwin W. Martin Reed Martin Donna L. Terman


The legal requirement that public schools serve all children with disabilities is a recent one. Prior to the 1970s, millions of children with disabilities were either refused enrollment or inadequately served by public schools.1 After securing some initial government support for special education efforts, advocates shifted to an emphasis on educational rights, an orientation strongly influenced by the civil rights movement.

Although it is widely assumed that a federal statute (Public Law 94-142, now named the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA), created educational rights for children with disabilities, in fact some of these rights were first established in state statutes (although not implemented) and also grew out of federal court cases based on the U.S. Constitution. The congressional bills which became Public Law 94-142 in 1975 were originally introduced in 1971, and their consideration by Congress had an impact on the nation, fueling the interest in state legislation and in litigation. In the context of the times, state law, federal law, and the federal and state courts provided a series of reinforcing actions.

The educational rights of students with disabilities are also ensured by two other federal laws: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Amendments of 1973) and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).