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Journal Issue: Special Education for Students with Disabilities Volume 6 Number 1 Spring 1996

The Legislative and Litigation History of Special Education
Edwin W. Martin Reed Martin Donna L. Terman

Historical Background

Persons with physical and mental disabilities have been the target of discrimination across cultures for thousands of years. On virtually every continent there are records of isolation, exclusion, and even destruction of persons with disabilities.2 Governmental treatment of persons with disabilities, beginning with their placement in institutions and moving slowly into the educational system and the workplace, is a relatively recent pattern.

Through most of the history of public schools in America, services to children with disabilities were minimal and were provided at the discretion of local school districts. Until the mid-1970s, laws in most states allowed school districts to refuse to enroll any student they considered "uneducable," a term generally defined by local school administrators. Some children with disabilities were admitted to public schools but were placed in regular education, with no special services. Others were served in special programs in public schools, though the services provided to them were often inadequate.3 Only after Public Law 94-142 became effective in 1978 and, in several states, after federal and state court cases, did "education for all" policies become a fact.