History of Special Education Access

The Individuals with Disabilities Act states that public schools are legally required to provide all children with disabilities an education that is appropriate for them (Collier, 2015). This was not always the case. From the very beginning, parent activism has been essential in increasing rights for students with disabilities.

Children with disabilities used to be excluded from the public school system. Through the activism and effort of parents, several supreme court cases in the 1970s and 1980s revolutionized education for children with disabilities, requiring public schools to educate all students appropriately (Stanley, 2015). In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act gave “children with disabilities… a federally protected civil right to a free and appropriate public education” (Stanley, 2015, p. 4). In 1990, this law was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and amended to stress the importance of parent involvement in special education decisions by requiring that they be included in the process (Stanley, 2015).

Although IDEA mandates that all children with disabilities receive an education that is appropriate for them, it is open-ended, allowing for unique educational models for every child. This flexibility is good because it means that each child receives an education that is right for them. However, the absence of clear-cut protocols can also lead to miscommunication and conflict between families and schools.

The Process

This information was gathered from the U.S. Department of Education.

  1. Either the parent or the teacher can request an evaluation of a child to see if they qualify for special education services. An evaluation is conducted and the child is found either eligible or not eligible for services.
  2. If the child is eligible, an IEP (“Individualized Education Program”) meeting is scheduled between parents, school professionals, and any other professionals or advocates that the parent would like to invite.
  3. An IEP is written and agreed upon at the IEP meeting. The IEP outlines the child’s current academic performance, the services that will be provided to the child, and goals for academic performance.
  4. Progress is recorded and the IEP is reviewed annually and/or if parents or teacher asks for additional reviews.
  5. The child is fully reevaluated every three years.

In this video, educational professionals outline the IEP process.


A successful IEP process involves communication and collaboration between parents and school professionals. Unfortunately, this often does not occur. Differences in opinion between schools and parents can lead to conflict. Conflict also results from an observed power hierarchy between teachers and parents, where parents feel that their voices are undervalued (Lake, 2000). Although parents are legally allowed to challenge a school’s decision, this can be time-consuming as well as financially and emotionally draining (Lake, 2000).

Perhaps most importantly, parents are unaware of what their rights are and how to go about navigating the process of providing special education services for their children: “Parents questioned their ability to advocate for their children without proper knowledge in the categories of organizational knowledge, disability knowledge, judgmental knowledge, legal knowledge, and conflict management knowledge” (Lake, 2000, p. 249). This lack of knowledge and difficulty advocating individually has brought parents together to fight for increased services and access to these services.