There Was No Signing Ceremony

            November 29, 2020 marks the 45th Anniversary of the signing of PL 94-142, the now titled Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA. Many do not remember 45 years ago, so therefore we here at SpedLawBlog would like to share some memories and reminders of what life was like prior to the passage of this landmark law and a little history.

I’ll start with a personal reflection. My brother-in-law (wife’s brother) has been previously identified as needing intensive supports related to his being labeled as having an intellectual disability. He is non-verbal. Needs helps getting dressed, toileting, and knows maybe ten signs that help him communicate to us that he wants to go to McDonalds right now. He was only legally allowed to go to school for one year, as it was legal at the time to prevent him from attending public school since he would not reach the requisite mental age by the time he would graduate. There are many individuals like him. Ones who needed an education but were denied access. Some parents paid for private schools, while others just kept their kids at home-not receiving an education.

This is not that long ago.

To prevent students from attending school there was often just one test, with no appeal. The movie Forrest Gump covers it nicely ( This scene does not give away the movie (it happens in the first ten minutes) but is a good representation. Luckily for Forrest, his mother does an intervention that gets him into school. Many students did not get that opportunity.

In the early 1970’s there were many parents and advocates pushing for services for students with disabilities. There were some court cases that helped move progress forward (PARC and MILLS). 

Congress started taking testimony on the needs. The following is an example of the findings.

Witnesses before the Senate and House Committees prior to the passage of PL 94-142, including parents, educators, advocates of handicapped rights, State legislators, program specialists, and Governors had some common observations:

  • A significant proportion of school-aged handicapped children were either not receiving appropriate educational services or not receiving any educational services.
  • States varied widely in the extent to which they were providing special education programs to the handicapped.
  • Many States were considering or had recently adopted legislation mandating free appropriate public education, some in response to court decisions.
  • Despite new mandates in a number of States to serve handicapped children in public schools, increased State funding for the handicapped, and good intentions of State program administrators,
  • Many handicapped children were not receiving comprehensive services, primarily because of lack of financial resources.
  • Expanded funding for educational services for the handicapped was believed to be a sound investment because, by some estimates, 90 percent of the handicapped population would become self-sufficient as well as taxpayers if properly educated.

Clearly something was needed to help students with disabilities, but also to provide guidance to states on how to implement educational services.

The Education for All Handicapped Children’ Act passed with veto-proof majorities in both Houses of Congress.

President Ford did not want to sign it. 

What could have been a glorious occasion welcoming millions of children with disabilities into education, when signed basically was his statement on why he wanted to veto the bill. There was no ceremony. 

President Gerald R. Ford’s Statement on Signing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975

December 2, 1975

I have approved S. 6, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975.

Unfortunately, this bill promises more than the Federal Government can deliver, and its good intentions could be thwarted by the many unwise provisions it contains. Everyone can agree with the objective stated in the title of this bill — educating all handicapped children in our Nation. The key question is whether the bill will really accomplish that objective.

Even the strongest supporters of this measure know as well as I that they are falsely raising the expectations of the groups affected by claiming authorization levels which are excessive and unrealistic.

Despite my strong support for full educational opportunities for our handicapped children, the funding levels proposed in this bill will simply not be possible if Federal expenditures are to be brought under control and a balanced budget achieved over the next few years.

There are other features in the bill which I believe to be objectionable and which should be changed. It contains a vast array of detailed, complex, and costly administrative requirements which would unnecessarily assert Federal control over traditional State and local government functions. It establishes complex requirements under which tax dollars would be used to support administrative paperwork and not educational programs. Unfortunately, these requirements will remain in effect even though the Congress appropriates far less than the amounts contemplated in S. 6.

Fortunately, since the provisions of this bill will not become fully effective until fiscal year 1978, there is time to revise the legislation and come up with a program that is effective and realistic. I will work with the Congress to use this time to design a program which will recognize the proper Federal role in helping States and localities fulfill their responsibilities in educating handicapped children. The Administration will send amendments to the Congress that will accomplish this purpose.

NOTE: As enacted, S. 6, approved November 29, 1975, is Public Law 94-142 (89 Stat. 773).

What did the law do back in 1975?


Part A — General Provisions Short Title Statement of Findings and Purpose

Sec. 601. (a) This title may be cited as the ” Education of the Handicapped Act.” (b) The Congress finds that–

(1) there are more than eight million handicapped children in the United States today.

(2) the special educational needs of such children are not being fully met.

(3) more than half of the handicapped children in the United States do not receive appropriate educational services which would enable them to have full equality of opportunity.

(4) one million of the handicapped children in the United States are excluded entirely from the public school system and will not go through the educational process with their peers.

(5) there are many handicapped children throughout the United States participating in regular school programs whose handicaps prevent them from having a successful educational experience because their handicaps are undetected.

(6) because of the lack of adequate services within the public school system, families are often forced to find services outside the public school system, often at great distance from their residence and at their own expense.

(7) developments in the training of teachers and in diagnostic and instructional procedures and methods have advanced to the point, given appropriate funding, State and local educational agencies can and will provide effective special educational and related services to meet the needs of handicapped children

(8) State and local educational agencies have a responsibility to provide education for all handicapped children, but present financial resources are inadequate to meet the special educational needs of handicapped children; and

(9) it is in the national interest that the Federal Government assist State and local efforts to provide programs to meet the educational needs of handicapped children in order to assure equal protection of the law. 

    (c) It is the purpose of this Act to assure that all handicapped children have available to them, within the time periods specified in section 612(2) (B) a free appropriate public education which emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs, to assure that the rights of handicapped children and their parents or guardians are protected, to assist States and localities to provide for the education of all handicapped children, and to assess and assure the effectiveness of efforts to educate handicapped children.

OSEP has some interesting timelines related to the 45th Anniversary:

Here is a summary. 

In 1976-77 school year, 3,694,000 students aged 3-21 were served under the law.

In the 2018-19 school year, 7,539,553 infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities from birth through age 21 were served under IDEA. 95% of students with disabilities ages 6-21 are served in a regular classroom at least part of the day.

Clearly, the opportunity to attend schools is an important variable for millions of students with disabilities. Let’s celebrate this and work to make sure millions more children receive this opportunity. Remind others that these children have disabilities at no fault of their own, and we need to do what we can to improve their lives. My brother-in-law was legally denied an education. Thankfully students with disabilities and their families do not have to go through what he did.

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