Celebrating 40 Years of IDEA: Supporting Youth, Schools, and Families!

Marissa Sanders head shotThe following blog is by Marissa Sanders, an independent consultant Video Interpreter for Sorenson Communications. Marissa Sanders has worked in disability rights for more than 15 years, previously serving as Executive Director of the West Virginia Commission for  the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and as Director of Training for the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center.  

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which became law 40 years ago, often takes a back seat to other civil rights laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Of course, the ADA has a wider reach – covering government agencies and private businesses alike. IDEA, however, addresses a more fundamental issue in my opinion: education.

As a young adult just beginning to get involved in the youth with disabilities movement, I remember being shocked at how little focus education issues seemed to get in the broader disability rights movement. I remember thinking, maybe we wouldn’t have a 70% unemployment rate if we had a better education system!

When I was 11 I started having seizures. I was diagnosed with Epilepsy and began trying to adjust to a new reality. I could have benefited from an Individualized Education Program (IEP), but my parents had never heard of such a thing and no one ever suggested it. Within a couple years, I was also exhibiting clear signs of depression, but despite being in counseling, no one diagnosed it or suggested interventions. I also was later diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

From fifth grade through my senior year, I managed three disabilities without ever knowing that I had a disability and without access to the incredible disability community who has now become my family. I didn’t know that I had a disability until I was in college and attended a non-credit course on disability and leadership. At that point I became involved in the National Youth Leadership Network and began to learn more about the disability community and disability history.

Had I been assessed in school, I believe I would have benefitted from accommodations like extra time for reading and math, access to my medications at school, increased structure in my schedule, and attention management strategies. Having an IEP also would have made it easier to get accommodations in college, had I requested them. Instead I gritted my teeth and got through high school, only to find myself on academic probation my freshman year in college. Even after realizing that I had a disability and working at disability services at my university, I never requested accommodations. This was partly due to fear of stigma and partly because my depression made the process seem completely overwhelming.

The ADA is seen as the premier civil rights law for people with disabilities, but IDEA, an important piece of disability civil rights legislation, preceded the ADA by 15 years. With the passage of IDEA, we began to see the desegregation of students with disabilities and have seen a small reduction in stigma and discrimination. However, we still see many students with behavioral disabilities or developmental disabilities sent to segregated schools. There still exists a stigma and fear around disability that 40 years of educational access have not erased. I know parents whose children would benefit from IEPs, but who refused them so their child would not have a “crutch” or a label that would follow them throughout and even after school. We have a long way to go toward realizing the dream of full equality and access for people with disabilities.

Fifteen years after leaving college, I am now a foster parent. My six year old foster daughter is in kindergarten. She has not been assessed, but I see signs of mental health issues that may surface in the future. My hope for her is that her teachers will see the value in helping her find effective accommodations for any disabilities that may be in her future. I hope for a future where she will learn about the disability community and our rich history of empowerment not just from her parents, but from her teachers and peers. I hope that as she transitions out of school and begins looking for a job, employers won’t bat an eye at an employee with a disability, that accommodating employees with disabilities will be second nature to them.

My three month old foster son has a condition that may result in a disability or special health care need. As he grows up under IDEA, I hope that he will receive the services he needs under Part C of IDEA and that any supports he may need will follow him seamlessly through each transition he will experience.

We’ve come a long way in 40 years. In my career I have seen a segregated school for students with physical disabilities closed in Chicago, restrictions on seclusion and restraint, and the beginnings of a shift from mainstreaming (placing students with disabilities in classrooms designed for students without disabilities) to inclusion and universal design for learning (designing classrooms and instruction for all students).

We still have a long way to go!  An ideal world would be one where every student has an IEP, where all instruction is tailored to the needs of the child and caters to their strengths. I don’t know that we’ll see that in my lifetime. My hope is that my children will continue the revolution of empowerment and will see more progress in the next 40 years than we have accomplished so far.

As we head into Thanksgiving, I am thankful for all of our disability civil rights laws. I am thankful for those who came before me who ensured that I would be able to attend school and learn alongside my peers. I am thankful for the groundwork that has been laid to protect and expand our civil rights and helps to pave the way for full equality in the future. I hope you will celebrate the anniversary of IDEA and use this anniversary to reflect on the progress we’ve made and the work we have left to do together.

Related Resources

Also, learn more how the federally mandated IEP can be coordinated with Individualized Learning Plans (ILPs) that are used or mandated in numerous states to improve college and career readiness for all students including students with disabilities!




This entry was posted in Accommodations, Disability History, Education, IEP, Parents & Families, Transition, Universal Access and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.