History of Inclusion & Improvement in Educating Students with Disabilities

A Legal History of Inclusion

Educators continue to debate and determine the best ways to teach students with disabilities. As more children with physical, intellectual, emotional, and other impairments learn alongside typical children, teachers continue to discover how to include these students in their classroom. Challenges, as well as benefits, of inclusion continue to emerge for educators, children with disabilities, and their non-disabled peers. However, nearly everyone agrees that education for students with disabilities has improved greatly. Taking a look at the legal history shows just how much progress has been made in educating students with disabilities in the United States, and how much more is needed.

The Beginning of Special Education

As recent as a hundred years ago, children with disabilities received little, if any, formal education. In the tradition of segregating students during the middle to late 19th century, special schools for those with disabilities continued to be created in the early 1900s. These schools claimed to educate children; however, they primarily served as residential facilities and institutions. Even in 1918, as states began creating a nationwide public school system, children with disabilities were usually excluded.

Between 1850 and 1950, special classes with people trained to care for individuals with disabilities began to develop as teachers noted differences among students. During these years, groups of parents of children with developmental disabilities started schools and programs. Although these developments were sporadic, they began to positively change ideas about teaching these children. Attitudes continued to change in the mid-1920s as educators began to see the value of education and community involvement for individuals with disabilities. Still, children continued being placed in institutions as many parents believed these facilities offered the only educational opportunity available to their child. Special education was typically only offered in large cities.

Improved Educational Opportunities

While the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that students could not be separated in schools because of race, the parents’ movement worked to change the belief that individuals with disabilities could not be taught. The movement additionally improved conditions in state institutions, created educational and employment opportunities, and proposed legislation. In public schools, however, more than a million students were excluded and another 3.5 million did not receive appropriate services. As many laws specifically exclude children with certain disabilities, only one in five have the right to an education.


Beginning with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and its amendments of 1986 and 1992, employment and educational rights of people with disabilities were guaranteed from institutions receiving federal funding. Then, with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), all school districts were required to develop and provide a free, appropriate public education for all children. The first major legislation of its kind, IDEA required that education be provided in the least restrictive environment for each child, meaning that students with disabilities should be taught in neighborhood schools in general education classes.

The U.S. Court of Appeals ruling, with Timothy v. Rochester School District, established that all school districts have the responsibility for educating every child, including those with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 further protected school-aged children with disabilities outside of education in employment and access to public and private services.

Inclusion: Another Way to Educate

Although still rare in many school districts, real special education inclusion began in the 1990s when children with physical disabilities gained access to neighborhood schools. For children with developmental disabilities in 1993, though, separate classes remain the norm. The reauthorization of IDEA in 1997 guaranteed more than access to education for students with disabilities; it ensured the rights to a quality education and quality outcomes. Another reauthorization of IDEA occurred in 2004 to align it more closely with the general education No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, while retaining, expanding, and clarifying important elements of the 1997 law.

The onset of inclusion has resulted in over 90% of students with disabilities receiving education in typical schools and almost half were included in the general classroom 80% of the day during the 1999-2000 school year. An increasing number of students with disabilities are graduating from high school, with over half earning a diploma. Full inclusion is still years away, though, as millions with disabilities learn in special education classrooms.


  • The Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. (2007). History of Education. www.mncdd.org/pipm/education/history_overview.html