Forrest Gump and The History of the IDEA
July 24, 2014
Photo property of Paramount Pictures

When we talk to parents about the history of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), we often refer the to movie Forrest Gump.  Forrest, portrayed by Tom Hanks, is a child in the 1950’s with a low IQ and leg braces.  In the movie, Forrest is prohibited from attending his public school.  His mother, portrayed by Sally Field, meets with the principal who agrees to enroll Forrest in exchange for sexual favors with her. While this movie is fiction, it accurately depicts a time in history when students with disabilities were legally turned away from the schoolhouse doors.

Riding the wave of the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, parents of children with disabilities were fighting to get their children equal access to education.  Unbelievably, as recently as 1970, public schools in the United States only educated one in five children with disabilities; literally millions of children were turned away from school.  In 1975, Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142), which was designed 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.  States who “opted in” to the funding attached to the federal law agree to follow the mandates contained in it; all States have chosen to accept the federal funding and are therefore bound by its procedural and substantive requirements.  This landmark law was amended by President Bill Clinton in 1997 and became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Circumstances for children with disabilities before the enactment of Public Law 94-142 were grim. Too many individuals lived in state institutions for persons with mental illness and intellectual disabilities.  For example, In 1967, state institutions were homes for nearly 200,000 persons with significant disabilities. Many of these restrictive settings provided minimal food, clothing, and shelter. Too often, persons with disabilities were merely accommodated rather than assessed, educated, and rehabilitated.

In the 39 years since the passage of Public Law 94-142, 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.

To learn more about the history of the IDEA:


Photo property of Paramount Pictures

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