Student Rights: Beyond the Barriers - Hearing and Speech Agency

Student Rights: Beyond the Barriers

As a speech-language pathologist, I spent almost the entirety of my training acquiring the technical knowledge that I needed to be successful. I learned a lot of answers to questions regarding “when” and “how.” Despite my minor in special education, I only recently realized that my training was missing answers to questions about “why.”

Did you know that this civil rights movement for students with special needs was a direct result of the civil rights movement related to race? And was a continuation of work started by the Deaf community in the 1800’s? I’m embarrassed to admit that until last year I had never made this connection. The strong, shared history between the two paths is amazing and should be celebrated and recognized. Without the traditional civil rights advocates of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Daisy Bates, John Lewis, and all the others who fought, combined with the work of 19th century Deaf advocates, the special education landscape of today would be very different.

The Supreme Court declared in the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision that segregating students based on color was in violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution because the educational opportunities were not equal between students of color and White students. In response, schools were desegregated.  After the Brown v. Board of Education decision, disability advocates began bringing lawsuits against school districts, claiming that excluding or segregating students based on disability status was also in violation of the 14th Amendment. However, this was not the first time that disability advocates were working towards increasing equity and access.  

Way back in In 1817, Thomas Gallaudet and his peers opened the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. The American School for the Deaf was the first school for children with disabilities in the United States. While initially a private endeavor, the school became supported by Connecticut during its first year of operation, becoming the first publicly supported elementary and secondary school for students with special needs. Thomas Gallaudet’s son, Edward Gallaudet became the first president of what is now known as Gallaudet University. Gallaudet University was the first college in the world to grant degrees to students with disabilities and was given the permission to confer degrees via an act of Congress in 1864. Gallaudet continues to be a world-class institution of higher education. But with the Brown decision, advocates for students with special needs finally had a legal precedent on which to establish educational policy.

Taking the metaphorical time machine back to the 20th century, amazing things happened for students of color, students with learning differences, and students with learning impairments in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In 1964, the Federal government passed the Civil Rights Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or nation of origin. Only one year later, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to address the needs of underprivileged students, providing financial supports to allow all students the ability to access quality education. In 1966, an amendment was added to ESEA, establishing a grant program to encourage states to improve the quality of programming they were providing to students with special needs. Congress passed Public Law 91-230  (the “Education of the Handicapped Act”) to further expand grants to states for special education programming.         

Three years later, Congress passed PL-94-142: The Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975. With this law, Congress declared that students with special needs were entitled to the “right to education.” The law also put accountability processes in place and established due process and procedural safeguards for students with special needs and their families. This law served students who were 6-21 years of age. Lawmakers established FAPE (a Free Appropriate and  Public Education) with this piece of legislation. In 1986, an amendment to The Education for all Handicapped Children Act (PL 99-457) expanded programming to provide special education preschool services to children 3-5 years of age and to provide early intervention services to students to students with diagnosed special needs or developmental delays starting from birth.  Four years later, the law was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Federal legislation related to students with special needs doesn’t stop in 1990 (No Child Left Behind anyone?), but with the revamp of IDEA in 1990, policy makers and educators set the foundation for the current special education system. Personally, I am eternally thankful for the advocates for equity for deaf students, and for students of color. Can you imagine a world in which those individuals did not inhabit those spaces? I cannot, and I feel strongly that it is our duty to understand this history to continue advocating for those who need us to lend our voice to their cause because there will ALWAYS be “a compelling need to understand and to be understood.” (Thank you to the HASA mission statement for that phrase).

Erin Stauder, CCC-SLP is the Executive Director of The Hearing and Speech Agency

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