An IDEA Colleges Should Appreciate

If you think the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act has nothing to do with higher education, think again.

October 2, 2015

Over the past summer, much fanfare greeted the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), including a reception at the White House and parades, speeches and gatherings across the country. By comparison, the anniversary of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) -- which came into being the same year -- came and went without public recognition.

The IDEA might seem tangential to those of us involved with higher education because its legislative reach extends only through secondary school. But as my classes get underway this fall, I’m reminded of its powerful impact on the current generation of college students, disabled and able-bodied alike.

The IDEA, which replaced 1975 legislation called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), mandates a “free appropriate public education” to all students from pre-K through high school. Before the passage of the EAHCA, many states had laws barring children with disabilities such as deafness, blindness, emotional disturbance and other cognitive delays from public education.

According to a research study completed in 1970, only one in five children with disabilities had received an education in school.

The 1975 law changed that by requiring schools to place them in the “least restrictive environment,” meaning, to the greatest extent possible, they would be included alongside nondisabled peers. The IDEA of 1990 expanded the age range of protected children, added measures to support families and included new provisions for adaptive equipment and services. Its new name also signaled an important shift away from “handicapped children” (which implied children were defined by their disabilities) to the people-first language of “individuals with disabilities” (which implied that disability was just one aspect of a child’s identity).

The life writing of people with disabilities tells harrowing stories of what it was like to go to school before the passage of the EAHCA. Animal scientist Temple Grandin, whose autism made it hard for her to converse socially, was teased and ostracized by her peers. The parents of Stephen Kuusisto, director of the honors program at Syracuse University, refused to enroll him in a school for the blind and sent him to a school where he received no accommodations for his low vision. Deaf scholar Brenda Brueggemann describes the awkwardness of going with classmates to movies where she was unable to hear or understand the dialogue.

Reading these accounts, I’m reminded that the students with disabilities I find in my classes are the beneficiaries of a very different system. The IDEA ensured that most of them received an inclusive education, and it required the schools they attended to provide adaptive technologies, assistants and support services that would allow them to succeed in classes with their nondisabled peers.

Less often acknowledged is the impact of the IDEA on nondisabled college students. By including larger numbers of students with disabilities in elementary and secondary schools, the IDEA changed how nondisabled kids understood the meaning of disability. It is far less common for today’s students to have attended a school where the “special” kids arrived on the stigmatized “short bus” and marched off to a separate classroom. Having those kids in class -- along with their wheelchairs, canes, adaptive communication devices and assistants -- naturalized disability in a way that would not have been possible in more segregated environments.

Many of today’s students grew up with the assumption that children with disabilities belong in the same classroom and have the same right to an education that they do. Research shows that having kids with disabilities in class teaches valuable lessons about acceptance, patience and diversity. As people with disabilities increasingly participate in the workforce, inclusive education also prepares the current generation of students for a diversity they will likely encounter in their professional lives.

In case I sound overly cheery, let me be clear that the IDEA is no panacea. I’m well aware that many schools still have special classrooms for children deemed too disabled for inclusion. New York City, where I live, is home to District 75, reserved for segregating those "special" kids from their typical peers. On the other end of the spectrum, some of my students attended exclusive private schools that are exempt from the requirements of the IDEA. Their experience of kids with disabilities is limited to the service learning projects that round out their stellar college applications. And despite the law, the families of students with disabilities are often exhausted by fighting for services they are entitled to.

That said, I’m still convinced the law provides a valuable foundation that is worth building on and that should be celebrated.

I’m never more aware of the impact of the IDEA than when I tell my students that I’m the parent of a child with Down syndrome. Because of the IDEA, my son attends second grade at an inclusive elementary school. More than one of my students has responded to this disclosure by saying, “My best friend has Down syndrome!”

In the generation before the IDEA, this scenario would have been virtually unthinkable. If they went to school at all, children with Down syndrome were tucked away in special classes where they learned life skills because nobody thought they were capable of reading and writing. Seeing them banished in this way, their typical peers learned that people with Down syndrome were not worthy of inclusion.

Certainly the world is a better place for my son: ample research shows that people with Down syndrome learn better in inclusive settings. But it is also a better place for his peers, who, thanks to the IDEA, learn to recognize him as a person deserving of respect and friendship. That recognition is high on the list of lessons I’d like my students to learn before entering college.


Rachel Adams is a professor of English and director of the Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University.


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