IDEA Changes Lives: Forty Years of Parent Training and Support

2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In the same year, the first center to help parents understand IDEA and how to advocate for their children with disabilities was born.

The first center received funding after Harvey Liebergott, then director of the Recruitment and Information Program, Bureau of Education for the Handicapped of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, met Martha Ziegler, director of the newly formed Federation for Children with Special Needs in Boston, Mass. Martha was a key parent leader who worked to pass the Massachusetts’ special education law, which in turn influenced the federal law. Martha had an idea for a walk-in parent information center.

In an April 4, 1975 letter to Martha providing funds for a pilot center, Harvey wrote, “Although we are not yet ready to commit ourselves to the funding on a long term basis, we would like to find a way to fund your proposal for the short term as a pilot for a period of six months to begin to implement a systemic method to do information and referral with follow-up…And in thinking of the long term, we do not anticipate funding projects for more than three years, establishing some basis for the centers to survive once federal support has ended. We estimate it will cost about ten million dollars to maintain comprehensive information and referral centers nationwide.” In an April 10, 1975 letter, Martha accepted the challenge of creating the pilot center, saying, “We expect to make some false starts…the essential point is to develop a working model.”

Forty years later, Martha’s commitment to providing parents with information and training has led to a large network of federally funded centers. Parent Training and Information Centers (PTIs) provide services to families in every state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Federal investments in parent training and information grew to include Community Parent Resource Centers (CPRCs) that serve parents in the most need of information and training in 30 communities as well as technical assistance centers that help parent centers provide the best information and support to families.

Harvey spoke at Martha’s memorial service in October 2014, saying, “She prodded and assisted everyone who could help. Martha saw the other organizations as allies, not competition. And she had lists of every relevant advocate and every constituency, with their needs and goals. Martha’s pitch was simple: all of the other groups included disproportionate numbers of children with special needs. She intended to support them and hoped that they would support her. They did. In Washington, Martha worked both sides of the aisle, and became a driving force in writing and passing and implementing virtually all of the important disability legislation of our time.”

The work that began in April 1975 continues every time parent centers develop the next generation of parent leaders and self-advocates. Martha’s legacy endures when families and professionals work tirelessly together to fulfill the promise of IDEA to improve “educational results for children with disabilities [as] an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

Contributing writer: Rich Robison, Executive Director, the Federation for Children with Special Needs

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Carmen M. Sánchez is an Education Program Specialist with the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education


  1. Although I am now a retired PTI director, I am so glad I dedicated 25 years of my life to the legacy Martha Ziegler created. I remember feeling utterly lost and confused when our son was diagnosed with autism way back in 1973 and I never wanted another parent to experience my confusion and helplessness. That is why I joined the IDEA parent center in Delaware.
    Thank you Martha and all you other pioneers, you will never know how much you have done for parents of children with disabilities!

  2. As a parent living in NYC, I learned so much about my rights and the rights of my children from Advocates for Children of NYC, oneof the parent Training and Information Centers in NYC. I was able to use that information ot advocate to get the services and supports my children needed. For the past twenty years, I have been the Co Director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, the PTI in NJ, and have seen first-hand how many families have received training and information and support from the PTI. Thank you to all of the amazing dedicated staff who work for the parent centers and help millions of children and families across the nation!

  3. Great blog post. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 40 years. Parent Training and Information Centers and Community Parent Resource Centers are still a huge and necessary resource for families and the education and early intervention systems that serve our children with disabilities. I know that Martha would be proud, yet still pushing us all further to make sure that every child has equitable access the promises of IDEA.

  4. Martha Ziegler was indeed a driving force behind the parent training center movement and national advocacy for students with disabilities. She is missed.

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