Compulsory education, school desegregation, civil rights laws, intelligence testing, the Great Depression, child labor laws, World War II, litigation, and funding each impacted the development of legislation for students with disabilities in the United States. The post World War II population boom and medical advances increased the survival rates of infants and cured crippling diseases which impacted significantly the special education rosters. At the same time, advances in psychology helped to define specific learning disabilities.
At this point, disability became more of a white, middle-class issue that it had ever been, and as a result, the political clout and aspirations of disabled citizens assumed a different character… middle-class parents called for better access and quality special programs, their voices were joined by those reflecting the interests of African American and other minorities who suspected that their children were being separated from the mainstream based more on bias than on educational necessity…
their efforts resulted in the passage of major disability rights legislation (Crockett and Kauffinan, 1999, p. 47). In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education, decision required the desegregation of the public schools on the basis of race. The Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled on the inherent inequality of separate education. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that a public education: is a principal instrument for awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him or her for later training, and in helping them to adjust normally to their environment.
It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he or she is denied the opportunity of an education (347 U. S. 483, 1954). While the principles of Brown were important to civil rights in education for all students, there remained a difference between race and disability in terms of providing an appropriate education. Continuing into the late 1960s, a number of legal challenges to the practice of excluding children with disabilities attempted to invoke the principles of Brown with varying results. Two types of exclusion of students with disabilities were pure exclusion and functional exclusion.
Equal access to education would only reduce pure exclusion and would not be enough to meet the needs of all children with disabilities; an equitable distribution of resources was necessary to eradicate both pure and functional exclusion (Turnbull & Turnbull, 1998, 17). Almost 20 years after Brown and seven years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the push to improve education for students with disabilities suddenly took hold. In PARC 13 parents had filed suit on behalf of their children. In Mills, seven parents filed suit. The two cases ignited a movement affecting millions of children with disabilities across the United States.
Following PARC and Mills, there were 46 right to education suits in 28 states with similar results leading up to the EHCA (Yell, 1998, p. 60). The phrase “tipping point” explains this type of social epidemic, the dramatic moment when everything can change seemingly all at once. The three characteristics of this type of an event are contagiousness, the fact that little causes can have big effects, and the idea that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment (Gladwell, 2000, p. 9). The early 1970s represented the tipping point when sweeping change in the area of special education law took place.
The success in the courts in the PARC and Mills cases followed by increasing numbers of legislative initiatives culminating with the passage of the EHCA. Exclusionary practices, both pure and functional, were addressed by the EHCA. The law established the requirement of a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment for all children with disabilities in this country. From 1948 to 1976, the number of children with disabilities in American public schools increased from 357,000 to 3,837,000 (Crockett and Kauffinan, 1999, p. 47).