A History of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act

A History of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act

Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142), also known as the EHA, in 1975 to support states and localities in protecting the rights of, meeting the individual needs of, and improving the results for infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities and their families. This landmark law’s name changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, in a 1990 reauthorization. The law was last reauthorized in 2004, and the department has periodically issued new or revised regulations to address the implementation and interpretation of the IDEA.

Before EHA, many children were denied access to education and opportunities to learn. In 1970, U.S. schools educated only one in five children with disabilities, and many states had laws excluding certain students, including children who were deaf, blind, emotionally disturbed, or had an intellectual disability.

Since the passage of EHA in 1975, significant progress has been made toward meeting major national goals for developing and implementing effective programs and services for early intervention, special education, and related services. The U.S. has progressed from excluding nearly 1.8 million children with disabilities from public schools prior to EHA implementation to providing more than 8 million children with disabilities with special education and related services designed to meet their individual needs in the 2022-23 school year.

In 2022-23, more than 66% of children with disabilities were in general education classrooms 80% or more of their school day (IDEA Part B Child Count and Educational Environments Collection), and early intervention services were provided to more than 441,000 infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families (IDEA Part C Child Count and Settings).

Other accomplishments directly attributable to the IDEA include educating more children in their neighborhood schools, rather than in separate schools and institutions, and contributing to improvements in the rate of high school graduation, post-secondary school enrollment, and post-school employment for youth with disabilities who have benefited from the IDEA.

Before the EHA’s enactment, the fate of many individuals with disabilities was likely dim. Many individuals lived in state institutions for persons with intellectual disabilities or mental illness. Many of these restrictive settings provided only minimal food, clothing, and shelter, and persons with disabilities were often merely accommodated rather than assessed, educated and rehabilitated.

Further, most families were not afforded the opportunity to take part in planning or placement decisions regarding their child, and resources were not available to enable children with significant disabilities to live at home and receive an education at neighborhood schools in their community.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government, with the strong support and advocacy of family associations, began to develop and validate practices for children with disabilities and their families. These practices laid the foundation for implementing effective programs and services of early intervention and special education in states and localities across the country.

Early federal legislation supported improved programs and services. Notable examples included:

  • the Training of Professional Personnel Act of 1959 (Public Law 86-158), which helped train leaders to educate children with mental retardation*;
  • the Captioned Films Acts of 1958 (Public Law 85-905), the training provisions for teachers of students with mental retardation* (Public Law 85-926), and 1961 (Public Law 87-715), which supported the production and distribution of accessible films;
  • the Teachers of the Deaf Act of 1961 (Public Law 87-276), which trained instructional personnel for children who were deaf or hard of hearing;
  • the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act of 1963 (Public Law 88-164) expanded previous specific training programs to include training across all disability areas;
  • the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (Public Law 89-10) and the State Schools Act (Public Law 89-313) provided states with direct grant assistance to help educate children with disabilities; and
  • the Handicapped Children’s Early Education Assistance Act of 1968 (Public Law 90-538) and the Economic Opportunities Amendments of 1972 (Public Law 92-424) authorized support for, respectively, exemplary early childhood programs and increased Head Start enrollment for young children with disabilities.

Landmark court decisions further advanced increased educational opportunities for children with disabilities. For example, the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens v. Commonwealth (1971) and Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia (1972) established the responsibility of states and localities to educate children with disabilities.

* A 2017 revision reflected changes made to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by Rosa’s Law, which replaces references to “mental retardation” in Federal law with “intellectual disability” or “intellectual disabilities.”

On November 29, 1975, President Gerald Ford signed into law the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142), or the EHA. The EHA guaranteed a free, appropriate public education, or FAPE, to each child with a disability in every state and locality across the country.

The four purposes of the EHA were:

  • to assure that all children with disabilities have available to them…a free appropriate public education which emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs,
  • to assure that the rights of children with disabilities and their parents…are protected,
  • to assist States and localities to provide for the education of all children with disabilities, and
  • to assess and assure the effectiveness of efforts to educate all children with disabilities.

The law authorized financial incentives to enable states and localities to comply with the EHA.

The EHA was a response to Congressional concern for two groups of children: the more than 1 million children with disabilities excluded entirely from the education system and the children with disabilities who had only limited access to the education system and were therefore denied an appropriate education. This latter group comprised more than half of all children with disabilities who were living in the U.S. at that time.

Facts and Figures

In the 1976-77 school year, 3,694,000 students aged 3 through 21 were served under the EHA.

To achieve the national goals for access to education for all children with disabilities, several special issues and special populations required federal attention. Key amendments to the law in the 1980s and 1990s reflected these national concerns.


  • The 1986 reauthorization (Public Law 99-457) addressed early intervention and mandated that individual states provide services to families of children born with disabilities from the time they are born. Previously, these services were not available until a child reached the age of three.
  • The 1990 reauthorization (Public Law 110-476) changed the law’s name from EHA to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. It also added traumatic brain injury and autism as new disability categories. Additionally, Congress mandated that as a part of a student’s individualized education program (IEP), an individual transition plan (ITP) must be developed to help the student transition to post-secondary life.
  • The 1997 (Public Law 105-17) reauthorization articulated a new challenge to improve results for children with disabilities and their families. This included an emphasis on access to the general curriculum. Additionally, states were given the authority to expand the “developmental delay” definition to also include students up to age nine. The law also required parents be provided an opportunity to attempt to resolve disputes with schools and local educational agencies (LEAs) through mediation and provided a process for doing so.

Birth Through Age 2

The 1980s saw a national concern for young children with disabilities and their families. While the EHA mandated programs and services for children 3 to 21 years that were consistent with state law, the 1986 amendments to the EHA mandated that states provide programs and services from birth.

These early intervention and preschool programs prepared young children with disabilities to meet the academic and social challenges that lie ahead of them, both while in school and in later life.

Facts and Figures

In the 1980-81 school year, 4,144,000 students aged 3 through 21 were served under EHA. By the 1990-91 school year, 4,710,000 infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities from birth through age 21 were served under IDEA.

Ages 3 Through 21

The 1980s and 1990s saw a push to expand the opportunities for educating children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment. For example, in the early 1980s, EHA supported several “Severely Handicapped Institutes” to develop and validate effective approaches for integrating children with significant disabilities with their non-disabled family members at home and their non-disabled classmates at school.

Model projects’ efforts led the way for millions of children with significant disabilities to attend their neighborhood schools and learn the life skills needed for full, active participation in integrated activities with their family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers.

Additionally, in 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed for the first time, what is meant by a free appropriate public education under EHA. In Hendrick Hudson Dist. Bd. Of Ed. v. Rowley, the Supreme Court concluded that to meet its obligation to provide FAPE, the school district must provide access to specialized instruction and related services which are individually designed to provide educational benefit to the child with a disability.  In 2017, the Court revisited the question of what level of educational benefit the school district must confer on children with disabilities to provide FAPE, as noted in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District Re-1 (2017) below.

The law has also supported the preparation of students for vocational success through new and improved transition programs.

The law’s 1983 amendments (Public Law 98-199), 1990 amendments (Public Law 101-476) and 1997 amendments (Public Law 105-17) supported initiatives for transition services from high school to adult living.

Because of these mandates, each transition-aged student’s IEP must include transition plans or procedures for:

  • Identifying appropriate employment and other postschool adult living objectives for the student;
  • Referring the student to appropriate community agencies; and
  • Linking the student to available community resources, including job placement and other follow-up services.

The IEP must also specifically designate who is responsible for each transition activity.

Facts and Figures

Of student with disabilities ages 14 through 21 who were known to have left school in the 1994-95 school year:

  • 52% graduated with a regular diploma,
  • 63% graduated with a regular diploma or certificate of completion, and
  • 34% dropped out.

Reauthorization of the IDEA

In 2004, the IDEA reauthorization aligned the IDEA with the No Child Left Behind Act requirements.

The 2004 reauthorization called for:

  • Early intervening services for children not currently identified as needing special education but who need additional academic and behavioral support to succeed in a general education environment,
  • Greater accountability and improved educational outcomes, and
  • Raised standards for instructors who teach special education classes.

Revised Regulations

The 2000s and 2010s saw revised regulations to the IDEA. The department issued these periodic revisions to address the implementation and interpretation of the IDEA.

Research-Based Interventions and Other New Requirements (2006)

In August 2006, the department issued regulations necessitated by the 2004 reauthorization. The 2006 IDEA regulations required schools to use research-based interventions in the process of assisting students with learning difficulties or determining eligibility for special education. The 2006 regulations also addressed other new requirements included in the 2004 reauthorization, such as:

  • The resolution process required when a parent files a due process complaint, and
  • Shifting the responsibility to provide equitable services for parentally-placed private school children with disabilities to the local educational agency (LEA) in which the private school is located.

Clarify and Strengthen Implementation and Administration of IDEA Programs (2008)

In 2008, the department issued regulations it determined were needed to clarify and strengthen effective implementation and administration of IDEA programs. These IDEA regulations addressed:

  • Parental consent for continued special education and related services;
  • Non-attorney representation in due process hearings;
  • State monitoring, technical assistance, and enforcement;
  • Allocation of funds; and
  • Positive efforts to employ and advance in employment individuals with disabilities.

Clarify or Revise IDEA for Infants and Toddlers With Disabilities Programs (2011, 2013)

Both 2011 and 2013 regulations included clarifications or revisions to the IDEA for infants and toddlers with disabilities programs. Additionally, the 2013 regulations revised the parental consent requirements related to a child’s or parent’s public benefits and ensured parent of children with disabilities are specifically informed of all their legal protections when public agencies seek access to public benefits or insurance to pay for services required under the IDEA.

Maintain Fiscal Effort, Academic Achievement Standards/Alternate Assessment (2015)

The 2015 revisions revised regulations governing the requirement that LEAs maintain fiscal effort and removed the authority for states to define modified academic achievement standards and develop alternate assessments based in those modified academic achievement standards or eligible students with disabilities.

Equity in IDEA (2016)

The department revised the regulations in 2016 with the goal of promoting equity under IDEA. The revised regulations help ensure that states meaningfully identify LEAs with significant disproportionality and that states assist LEAs in ensuring that children with disabilities are properly identified for services, receive necessary services in the least restrictive environment.

The 2016 revised regulation also helps ensure children with disabilities are not disproportionately removed from their educational placements by disciplinary removals. The changes were necessary to address the well-documented and detrimental over-identification of certain students for special education services, with particular concern that over-identification results in children being placed in more restrictive environments and not taught to challenging academic standards.

The department’s Equity in IDEA regulation on significant disproportionality:

  • Establishes a standard methodology states must use to determine whether significant disproportionality based on race and ethnicity is occurring in the state and its local educational agencies LEAs;
  • Clarifies that states must address significant disproportionality in the incidence, duration, and type of disciplinary actions, including suspensions and expulsions, using the same statutory remedies required to address significant disproportionality in the identification and placement of children with disabilities;
  • Clarifies requirements for the review and revision of policies, practices, and procedures when significant disproportionality is found; and
  • Requires that LEAs identify and address the factors contributing to significant disproportionality as part of comprehensive coordinated early intervening services (comprehensive CEIS) and allow these services for children from age 3 through grade 12, with and without disabilities.

Rosa’s Law and Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District Re-1 (2017)

Notably, a 2017 revision reflected changes made to the IDEA by Rosa’s Law, which replaces references to “mental retardation” in Federal law with “intellectual disability” or “intellectual disabilities.” Other 2017 revisions removed and revised IDEA definitions based on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA).

In March 2017, the Supreme Court ruled on a landmark case that defines the scope of FAPE requirements under IDEA. In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District Re-1, the Supreme Court determined that “[t]o meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” The Court additionally emphasized the requirement that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

Facts and Figures

Birth Through Age 2

In 2005-06, 299,048 infants and toddlers with disabilities from birth through age 2 were served under IDEA, Part C. By 2018-19, 409,315 infants and toddlers with disabilities from birth through age 2 were served under IDEA, Part C.

Ages 3 Through 21

In the 2018-19 school year, 7,130,238 students with disabilities from 3 through 21 were served under IDEA, Part B.

In the 2017-18 school year, 72.7% of students with disabilities, age 14-21, exiting school graduated with a regular high school diploma and 16% dropped out.

Educators/Service Providers

In the 2005-06 school year, 695,466 teachers and related service personnel were employed to serve students age 3 through 21. By the 2017-18 school year, 942,446 teachers and related service personnel were employed to serve students age 3 through 21.


From the beginning of special education legislation, families of children with disabilities have been considered important partners in meeting the needs of children with disabilities.

IDEA includes key principles to guide families and professionals to work together to enhance the educational opportunities for their children.

IDEA requires active parent participation throughout the educational process including the development of the child’s IEP.

IDEA 1997 amendments mandated that schools report progress to parents of children with disabilities as frequently as they report to parents of non-disabled children. The intent was to maintain an equal and respectful partnership between schools and families.

Educators and Service Providers

IDEA has continued the long-standing federal commitment to provide an adequate supply of qualified teachers.

Today, hundreds of thousands of professionals specializing in early childhood and special education are being trained with IDEA support. These professionals include early intervention staff, classroom teachers, therapists, counselors, psychologists, program administrators, and other professionals who will work with future generations of children with disabilities and their families.

IDEA has supported states and localities in meeting their identified challenges for personnel preparation.

For example, IDEA has supported local communities who were developing and implementing early childhood programs; schools serving students with low-incidence disabilities, such as children who are blind or deaf or children with autism or traumatic brain injury; and schools in rural or large urban areas, where financial and other resources are often scarce.

State Lead Agencies, State Educational Agencies, and Local Educational Agencies

The IDEA requires states and other public agencies to implement programs designed to improve results for infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities and their families.

Additionally, the IDEA allows for the award of annual formula grants to states to support early intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families, and the provision of special education and related services to preschool children ages three through five, and children and youth with disabilities

Discretionary Grant Recipients

IDEA discretionary grants award grants through a competitive process to state educational agencies, institutions of higher education, and other nonprofit organizations to support technical assistance and dissemination, technology and media services, state personnel development grants, personnel preparation, state data collections, and parent-training and information centers.

Discipline, Severe Discrepancy

Last modified on February 16, 2024