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Why we need IDEA

Spirit Lake family

I went to elementary school in the 1960’s. My friend, Janine, had a brother who was my age who had Down syndrome. He did not go to school because both the public schools and the Catholic school (where we attended) said he was unable to learn. Her brother was toilet-trained, could dress himself, could walk, and talk, although not as well as other children his age. At 11, he was at the same level as his five-year-old sister. My mother asked Janine’s mom whether she could get any school to accept her son, but she said, “No, the only choice they gave us was to put him in the state institution. That’s just crazy. He is an 11-year-old boy. No 11-year-old is ready to live away from home and especially not one who is mentally retarded. So, I told the state ‘over my dead body’, I would take care of him myself. My husband isn’t much help because he has to work all of the time, but I have my other five kids to help me. He really isn’t much trouble, he’s a good boy. It’s hard for him, though, when school starts, especially since the youngest one started kindergarten this year. He gets really lonely during the day. And, of course, I’ll never be able to go to work, because I have to be home all day.”

Everyone over forty probably has a true story just like the one above. Until the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) passed in 1975, it was legal for schools to turn down children with disabilities - and that is exactly what nearly all of them did. IDEA is actually three laws - the original law, from 1975, which is also called PL 94-142. This law was amended several times. The latest amendments passed in 2004. All made changes in the lives and education of people with disability, but the original 1975 act was the most important.

Look at the picture of the three children above. Before IDEA, schools could tell families that two of those children could attend school and one could not. They could give all kinds of reasons:

  • "She has seizures. The teachers are not trained to deal with a child with seizures in the classroom. It would be upsetting to the other children."
  • "His IQ is below 70, he won't be able to learn." (Remember the movie, "Forrest Gump"?)
  • "It would be too expensive to get an interpreter for sign language"

Once IDEA passed, none of those excuses could be used ever again. Every child, regardless of disability was entitled to a "free, appropriate public education".

Next page, legal rights created by IDEA

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