IDEA46 | Transcending Barriers, Past and Present


By Katherine (Katy) Neas, Deputy Assistant Secretary
Delegated the authority to perform the functions and duties of the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

This month marks 46 years since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was enacted. I couldn’t let this anniversary pass without sharing some reflections about the importance of IDEA, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and reaffirming the commitment of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) to upholding this landmark civil rights law.

The last 18 months have challenged schools, families, and students in countless ways. Together, they navigated situations no one ever anticipated. In my role at OSERS, I’ve heard from some parents that their children struggled mightily with virtual learning. Others have told me that their children thrived. Yet, during this time when uncertainty was pervasive, a few things remained constant. The vast majority of educators — general education teachers, special education teachers, early intervention services providers, specialized instructional school personnel, administrators and others — were heroic in their commitment to meeting infants, toddlers and students’ needs. Families and caregivers did all they could to support and advocate for their learners. And the protections of IDEA remained throughout it all.

In 1975, it was a different world for children with disabilities. More than 1.8 million students with disabilities were denied access to an education. For those who receive any services, most were delivered in segregated settings and few children had access to the same educational curriculum as their nondisabled peers. Today, more than 70 percent of students in special education graduate with a standard high school diploma. Hundreds of thousands of infants and toddlers are reaching developmental milestones thanks to effective early intervention services.

Parents of children with disabilities started this journey that has transformed millions of lives over these past 46 years. They demanded that their child with a disability have the same right to a public education as was afforded their non-disabled children. Their dedication to equity shaped the values that permeate our work at the U.S. Department of Education: that all children have value and deserve an education.

As we celebrate this IDEA anniversary, I am excited about what lies ahead. President Biden’s Build Back Better initiative advances the ideals and goals of the promise of IDEA. Not only does Build Back Better establish universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, it also invests in grant programs to address teacher shortages and to prepare teachers through specialized training to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Once enacted, the President’s initiative further ensures that all children, including those with disabilities, will have the educational supports they need to be productive, independent, and contributing members of their communities.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.


  1. What’s the status of fully funding IDEA? Many, many students with disabilities do not qualify for an IEP and still struggle. Ie: my son has dyslexia. It effects our entire family. It’s needlessly time consuming, exhausting, and frustrating. We need more awareness, professional development, evidenced based assessments and interventions.

  2. Yes, It has been challenging and rewarding to be involved and watch the progression of IDEA over the years. Lives changed, dreams achieved and greater awareness of need and rights of children with disabilities! Let’s keep up the good work1

  3. Katherine (Katy) Neas, Deputy Assistant Secretary
    Thanks the Blog, brings back many memories from 1974 – 75 for me. I was one of 75 individuals appointed by Congress to meet in San Diego, CA the fall of 1974 to draft the new Special Education Bill (Handicapped Act at that time) I was a High School Principal/Director of an Area Vocational School in Colorado at that time. It was interesting for sure as we met and developed the legislation. Things have certainly changed over the 46 years, it has been nice to see the progression. I am still in the education world working for two National Education Centers funded by OSEP through the American Institutes for Research (AIR)

  4. There is no doubt that the last two years have been challenging , especially for families of children with disabilities. The one thing that sticks out is that the support for the underserved must be prioritized. If we are to provide the services necessary for these children we must do what will make a difference in their educational lives. Let us come together and shape the supports that will make a difference for our future. We must accept the challenge and opportunity presented to us as parents, educators and advocates by the pandemic. Seize the time.

  5. Great reminder. Happy 46th Anniversary of IDEA. Katy, thanks for your disability-inclusive diversity leadership through the decades. Lead On!

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