IDEA: A History 

Glynnis Olin, Office Administrator & Blog Writer 

Today, children living with disabilities are guaranteed a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), including special education and related services, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This means that no matter what disability-related accommodations a child requires to succeed in the classroom, they are legally entitled to them. These protections have evolved tremendously over the past several years, but there was a time – not too long ago – when they didn’t exist at all. 

Then came the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) of 1975. The EHA was created to support children living with disabilities who were excluded from the U.S. public education system. The original core principles of the EHA included federal assistance to guarantee FAPE in the least restrictive environment (LRE) for all children with disabilities, and the protection of the rights of these children and their parents. These founding principles remain in place today and live on through the law that replaced the EHA in 1990: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 

One of the millions of American children who struggled to navigate the world of education before the EHA and IDEA was Frank Harkin – brother of U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, a champion of education accessibility through his advocacy for both the IDEA and the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). Deaf since the age of five, Frank was denied opportunities within his local public school district because students with deafness were not guaranteed any classroom accommodations. Instead, Frank was forced to board at the Iowa School for the Deaf, which was over two hours away from his home and family. On top of the trauma of being given no choice but to leave his family, he was later presented with extremely limited employment opportunities upon graduation. He never had the chance to reach his full potential. 

Fortunately, in 2022, children living with disabilities in the U.S. have a whole world of opportunity before them thanks, in part, to the IDEA. The law provides states with special education grants that support programs such as early intervention (EI) and related services. Further, the IDEA funds agencies and organizations that conduct research and development related to special education support – institutions that would have fundamentally changed Frank’s childhood for the better. 

Over the years, Congress has reauthorized and evolved the protections of the EHA and IDEA. The EHA introduced early intervention services and Individualized Family Service Plans (IFSPs), which are used to customize special education and related services for children under three. But it was the 1990 reauthorization of the EHA, the same one that changed the law’s name to IDEA, that introduced a new group of protections for students. Through this, the IDEA finally recognized traumatic brain injury and autism as disability categories and mandated the development of individual transition plans (ITPs) for students with IEPs to help them adjust to post-high school life. Subsequent versions of the law also expanded the definition of developmental delay to include students up to age nine, required instructors of children with special needs to use research-based interventions, and solidified the resolution process for due process complaints, in addition to addressing how best to assist people with disabilities in obtaining employment. 

Here at the Law Office of Michelle Siegel, we are carrying the IDEA’s legacy forward. We advocate for equal access and educational opportunities for children with disabilities, so your child has every accommodation they need to thrive in the classroom. We help children get the FAPE to which they are entitled by helping you navigate the IEP process and, should it prove necessary, secure funding for more specialized supports. Like the IDEA, our firm adapts to children’s changing needs throughout their development. But it’s not just about the law itself – we also foster a collaborative and compassionate culture with our clients and their schools. 

As we look to the future of children’s educational rights, we hope to embrace increased inclusivity and support for all children, regardless of disability, identity, or background. As the IDEA’s 2017 reauthorization reflected a movement toward increased respect for children with disabilities by, for example, removing demeaning labels like “mental retardation,” we will help ensure your child is not defined merely by their IEP classification.

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