Special education from a civil rights perspective

The definition of a disability under Section 504 is not as specific as the definition used in IDEA. Section 504 applies to any child who "has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of such person's major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment. " (Smith, 2001, p. 338). In the case of students, learning is considered a "major life activity. " Therefore, if the child has a physical or mental impairment that limits his or her ability to learn, then the child may qualify for special education services under Section 504.

Section 504 includes categories that are not specifically listed under IDEA, including "any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities" (Smith, 2001, p. 338). Consequently, ADHD; unspecified learning disabilities, social maladjustment, substance abuse disorders, and other specific health needs that are not included under IDEA may be covered by Section 504 (Smith, 2001). NCLB is the most comprehensive federal education reform law to date.

Under the law,  students with disabilities are required to take standardized assessments of their academic progress. Schools and teachers will be evaluated, in part, on the test scores of their disabled students. Part of the challenge of NCLB is to find ways to reconcile a special education system that is based on the unique needs of the individual learner with a law that requires all children to meet the same academic standards (Elliott, 2003). As noted above, there are no provisions in the U. S. Constitution for federal control over education.

Congress, however, has found ways to circumvent this barrier to federal control over what the Framers of the Constitution believed should be within the domain of state and local governments. For IDEA, NCLB, and other education programs designed at the federal level, the federal government has used economic incentives as a way of forcing schools to comply. Similar economic incentives were used to ensure equal treatment of men's and women's sports programs under Title IX of the Education Act Amendments (Imber & Geel, 2004, p. 240). Schools that do not comply with the laws are at risk of losing their federal funding.

Historically, the policy of providing FAPE to all students, including students with severe developmental disorders and other handicaps, reflects a relatively new philosophy in public education. Before 1975 and the passage of Public Law 94-142, the law which eventually became IDEA, schools in most states were not required to provide education services to any student which the school determined to be "uneducable", a broad and highly subjective term which was applied by local school boards or by school administrators (Martin, Martin, & Terman, 1996, p.

127). During this time, students with physical or developmental handicaps were routinely discriminated against by school administrators and were denied access to education services in public schools, just as African Americans and other minorities were prevented from attending classes with white students and were required to attend classes in segregated school systems.

Because of this common legacy of segregation and discrimination, the development of special education policy in the United States and the integration of special education students into the general student population is perhaps best understood if it is viewed through the lens of the Civil Rights movement and not necessarily as an education issue. The racial desegregation of public schools began with Brown v. Board of Education (U. S. Supreme Court, 1954), in which  the U.

S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to segregate public schools on the basis of race. In Brown, the Supreme Court found that separate schools were inherently unequal and were therefore unable to provide the same level of educational services to African American children and other minorities. If the United States was going to provide a free and equal education for all of its children, it would have to stop separating children according to race.

Although Brown did not specifically address the civil rights or educational rights of children with disabilities, the Supreme Court's ruling in the case provided a rationale for the argument that children with special needs also had a right to receive free and appropriate education services in public schools. If children were not to be segregated according to race, then it could also be argued that children should not be segregated according to disability.

This is the argument that was presented by the Council for Exceptional Children in an article published in their journal in 1955, one year after Brown (Daugherty, 2001, p. 2). However, while the racial integration of America's public schools occurred fairly quickly through court ordered busing and other changes, the acceptance of disabled students proceeded at a much slower pace and is, to some extent, still unfolding.