Special Education

History of Special Education

Fifty years ago, U.S. public schools were not legally required to educate students with disabilities. While some schools of education had already been training teachers to work in the field of special education, many children with disabilities did not attend public schools at all until schools were mandated to serve them with the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in 1975.

Until that time, parents of children with disabilities had to teach their children at home or pay for private education. And the advocacy of those parents eventually led to changes—but the progress was slow. Some parents of children with special needs were forming advocacy groups in the early 1900s. And in 1961, President John F. Kennedy formed the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation, which recommended providing federal aid to states to educate children with disabilities. That move paved the way for the passage of EHA.

Special Education Federal Laws

With the EHA’s passage in 1975, children with disabilities were provided with specific legal rights to a public education. The law required that students with disabilities should be placed in a school environment that provided equal access to education. With parent advocacy and the new law, children with milder disabilities were increasingly mainstreamed, or placed in regular classrooms, during the 1970s and 1980s.

Fifteen years after the passage of the EHA, the law was reformed as the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). The new law focused on parents’ rights to be involved in education decisions affecting their children and required that each child with disabilities have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which must be developed with parental approval to meet the child’s individual needs.

In 1997, the U.S. Congress reauthorized IDEA with a new emphasis on academic outcomes. This change raised expectations for students and required schools to support students with disabilities in following the general curriculum when possible and support their parents. It also led to a new focus on planning for school-to-work transitions for students with disabilities.

Gradually, special education has focused more on inclusive education and combining students with and without special needs when possible. In 2004, Congress reauthorized IDEA again with instructions that students with disabilities should have “access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom, to the maximum extent possible.”

Special Education Laws Timeline


EHA gave children with disabilities the legal right to an education.


EHA was reformulated as IDEA, requiring every child with a disability to have an IEP. The same year, the ADA passed, ensuring equal treatment and equal access to people with disabilities in employment and public accommodations.


IDEA was reauthorized, emphasizing academic outcomes for students with disabilities.


IDEA was again reauthorized, with emphasis on mainstreaming when possible and on early interventions.

Types of Special Education

Students with special needs can learn in a variety of different ways. In the early days of special education, many students with disabilities were taught in residential settings and specialty schools, such as a school for the blind. Over the years, students with disabilities have been increasingly mainstreamed into general education classrooms. Here’s a look at the most common types of special education.

Push-in services are offered when a student with disabilities is in a mainstream classroom. An occupational therapist or other specialist comes into the room to provide extra help.

Pull-out services are provided when a student with disabilities spend most of their time in a regular classroom but may be pulled out for extra help or therapy.

Inclusive classrooms include a mix of children with varying abilities, and often more than one teacher so that those who need extra help can get it.

Exclusive education allows students with similar educational needs to share one classroom and a lower student-to-teacher ratio.

Specialty schools offer focused places where students with severe challenges or physical disabilities, such as deafness or blindness, can learn together. They usually receive occupational, speech and other therapies.

Residential programs, best for students who need 24/7 care, were more common before the passage of EHA. These programs continue to be a good option for students who have severe medical needs that can’t be managed at home or in school.

Technology in Special Education

Innovative technologies have transformed almost every professional field in recent years, and that includes special education. Assistive technology devices make it easier for students with disabilities to learn more effectively. Thirty years ago, volunteers would read books aloud and record their voices on cassette tapes to make the texts accessible for students with visual impairments. Today, a wide variety of audiobooks, software programs and hearing, speaking and listening devices are available to simplify learning for students with all types of disabilities.

As our world continues to become more inclusive, trends in educating children with disabilities reflects that. You can help make history by joining the field of special education and watching the progress of children with disabilities as you help mold them to fulfill their unique potential. Learn more about potential jobs for special education teachers here.

Looking for a career in education? Sunbelt can help! Search through our available positions by clicking on the button below. 

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