Senator Tom Harkin — IDEA 35 Years

Circa 2010-11
3 picture's of Senator Harkin
Senator Harkin


Dear ABILITY readers,

November 18 marked the 35th anniversary of Public Law 94-142, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This is a tremendously important and successful law, and it embodies a simple but radical idea: every child can benefit from an education, and has a right to a free and appropriate public education.

Many people today might say this right is self-evident. Three and a half decades ago, however, that was far from the case. Prior to 1975, children in the United States with intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities and sensory disabilities were not guaranteed access to a public education. In many cases, children with disabilities had little choice but to remain at home with their families. Many were shut out of their local schools, shunned by a society that could not see the benefit of educating children who had intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, hearing impairments, visual impairments, or other disabilities.

I understand this historical fact only too well. My older brother, Frank, lost his hearing at an early age. He was taken from our home, our family and our community, and sent clear across the state to the Iowa School for the Deaf. Back then, people often referred to it as the school for the “deaf and dumb.’’ Yes, that was the insensitive way in which people used to talk. I remember my brother telling me, “I may be deaf, but I am not dumb.’’

While in school, Frank was told he could be one of three things: a cobbler, a printer’s assistant, or a baker. He said he didn’t want to be any one of those things. His teacher said, “Okay, you’re going to be a baker.”

check this out

But over time, the law we now know as IDEA has borne amazing fruit. Today, the majority of students with disabilities are in general education classrooms at least 80 percent of the day. And who made this possible? You did! Parents, families, teachers, therapists, advocates, and communities who refused to accept a medieval status quo for our children.

I think of parents such as Elizabeth Boggs of Cleveland, OH, who founded advocacy groups that pushed local school districts, states, and the entire country to recognize the injustice of wasting the potential of young people with disabilities. I think of the Fialkowski family of Philadelphia, PA, and other families who joined together to petition states to include their children in public schools.

In 1972, a critical court case, PARC vs. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, concluded that denying children with disabilities equal access to public education was a violation of the 14th amendment guaranteeing equal protection under the law. The right of children with disabilities to an equal education is not a federal mandate concocted by Congress out of the blue and imposed on states. It is a constitutional mandate.

Thirty five years ago, states pleaded they lacked the financial resources necessary to implement the courts’ decisions in PARC and many similar cases. As a result, Congress stepped in and passed IDEA as a method of offering financial assistance to states in the fulfillment of their obligations under the Constitution, and to ensure that such principles as child find, zero reject, parent participation, and due process were integral parts of educating students with disabilities.

check this out

The “zero reject” requirement was an extremely important component of this effort. IDEA insisted that all children, no matter what their disabilities, had rights to an education. And not second-rate, segregated education. The law demanded children be provided free, appropriate, and public education that would occur in the least restrictive environment possible.

We knew at the time of IDEA’s implementation that education should be tailored to the individual student. And we knew it is important for children to be in the school of their community, the school their siblings, friends and neighbors also attend. So we made sure those principles were reflected in the law.

Today, though we celebrate 35 years of progress under IDEA, our work is by no means complete. In the years ahead, we must redouble our focus on high expectations for students with disabilities. We must ensure that the post-high school reality for students with disabilities includes opportunities for higher education.

Additionally, our focus on students with disabilities cannot end when they complete school. We must also build pathways into the workforce—real opportunities for competitive, integrated employment, with decent wages and benefits—for all young people with disabilities. This effort is absolutely critical to helping our citizens with disabilities realize the four great goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act: equal opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic selfsufficiency.


Senator Tom Harkin

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) is Chairman of the

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee

sharing is caring

we did our part - now do yours and share

like a good neighbor, share

Related Articles: