Legal Rights & Protections


People with disabilities have always been a part of our society. But as a part of society, their needs were largely ignored in times past. Why was this? It was probably due to a lack of knowledge regarding people with differences of any kind. As you are probably well aware, it has been our society’s nature to segregate and discriminate against those groups of people who look, act, or think differently than the majority. No exception was made with people who had disabilities. In fact, publicly supported programs of education very often excluded persons with disabilities. And until the 1970s, there were actually state laws that allowed public schools to deny enrollment to children with disabilities.

For many of these individuals, especially people with severe disabilities, placement in an institution often occurred. This is quite shocking considering we now have laws that protect the rights of students with disabilities to an education. Consider the case of Beattie vs. Board of Education (1919). In this case, a student had a disability that caused him to drool, have involuntary facial contortions, and have speech problems. Although his disability was strictly physical, and his intellectual ability was not affected, he was expelled from school because “this condition nauseated the teachers and other students” (Yell, 1998). The case went before the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the court ruled that school officials could indeed exclude students with disabilities. Once this student was removed from a public education setting, it was actually suggested that he attend a school for students who were deaf. Hardly an appropriate placement! Just imagine for a moment if this case were to take place today. Fortunately, the outcome would be quite different.

Eventually, schools began to allow children with disabilities into their buildings. However, these children were still very much segregated. They were kept separate from their peers in the general education program and were confined to isolated classrooms. To make matters worse, these children were often referred to as “crippled”, “retarded”, or “disturbed”. We have come a long way since those days, but it is important to remember that the changes that have been made are still very recent. It wasn’t that long ago that these deplorable conditions were a reality for students with disabilities.

The first significant movement that helped pave the way for gaining rights for people with disabilities came in 1972 with two court cases called Mills v. Board of Education, and Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Citizens (PARC) v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. If you plan to pursue a career in special education, remember these names because you will run into them again! In the PARC case, it was argued before a United States District Court that students with intellectual disabilities (then called mental retardation) who were excluded from public school were being denied basic constitutional rights – that of equal protection (the Fourteenth Amendment to our Constitution) and due process of law (the Fifth Amendment).

Witnesses for this case made the point that children who have intellectual disabilities are absolutely capable of benefiting from education. The decision in this case was that children in Pennsylvania between the ages of 6 and 21, who have intellectual disabilities, must be provided a free public education. It was also determined that it would be most beneficial to enroll these children in a program that was the most similar to the programs developed for their peers without disabilities. This was a great step towards equality for youth with disabilities.

Soon after the PARC decision, another lawsuit was filed. This case was Mills v. Board of Education. This suit was brought forth by the parents and guardians of children who represented a wide range of disabilities in Washington DC, our nation’s capital. As did the advocates in the PARC case, these parents based their argument on the Fourteenth Amendment (equal protection) and stated that their children were excluded from school without due process of law. The ruling in this case was that all children with disabilities in the District of Columbia must be provided a publicly supported education.

This case was also responsible for gaining the right to due process safeguards for these students. These safeguards include: the right to a hearing, the right to appeal, the right to have access to records, and written notice requirements. The PARC and Mills cases are similar in their rulings. Note that the major difference is that in the PARC case, only children with intellectual disabilities were represented, whereas in the Mills case students with a wide range of disabilities were represented. Together, these two cases blazed the trail for the protection of educational rights for people with disabilities. These court cases, and others like them, caused Congress to finally act in 1975 by passing the law we now know as IDEA – the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Now that you know how some of the first laws for the rights of people with disabilities have come about, let’s look at some of the specific legislation that influences the realm of education in our country. To begin, please proceed to the unit titled Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).