On Nov. 29, 1975, President Gerald Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act into law. At the time, this action instantly helped millions of disabled and underserved children receive an appropriate public school education. Over time, the law became better known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, and on Monday afternoon, a large crowd gathered inside the Wynne Auditorium at the McKinley School of Law on the campus of IUPUI to wish IDEA a happy 40th birthday.
The 90-minute session was broken down into several parts, all moderated by Frank Sullivan Jr., a professor at the School of Law. In his opening remarks, he talked about his work on Congressman John Brademus’ staff in his younger days. Brademus was a key character in the history of IDEA. It was Brademus, after all, who introduced the discussion of children with disabilities to Congress. And he never let go of the fight, something that still resonates with Sullivan Jr.
“Today is an opportunity for me to acknowledge the contribution to this nation made by the great mentor of my life,” he said.
During the session, there was also a brief discussion about IDEA’s history. Lauren Pena, an Admissions Advisor for the School of Law, said that 20 percent of children with disabilities living before IDEA’s passage were educated in separate classrooms, far away from their ‘regularly educated’ peers. Others were educated in separate schools, while some weren’t educated at all.
Pena contrasted that with the fall of 2011, where almost 95 percent of children with disabilities were served in regular schools nationwide.
She also talked about how the roots of IDEA stretched as far back as Brown vs. the Board of Education.
Although the 1954 court case dealt with racial segregation, it laid the groundwork for families of children with disabilities to put up a fight.
“It paved the way for, not only racial minorities, but for all individuals to have a right to an education,” she said.
But while IDEA was gaining momentum in the House, with a similar movement in the Senate, the Oval Office was a different story. In fact, President Ford initially opposed IDEA for several reasons. The biggest was money. At the time, the government would have had to appropriate $3.8 billion for IDEA’s implementation. In other words, President Ford thought it cost too much.
After a few compromises, and some lengthy debates, the numbers were brought down. Instead of $3.8 billion, it became $378 million. With the numbers finally in working condition, the bill overwhelmingly passed in both the House and the Senate, and President Ford made it a reality when he signed Public Law 94-142.
Although history was a big portion of Monday’s event, there was also a panel discussion about the effects of IDEA on educators and children alike.
Perhaps one of the more poignant parts of the afternoon came from Dr. Bob Marra. Marra is the Executive Director of the Office of Charter Schools at Ball State University and a former Associate Superintendent in Indiana’s Department of Education.
During a panel discussion, he began to talk about a kid named Nick, who Marra had met a few years earlier. Nick had Down Syndrome, but he never let that stop his push for advancement in life. He was even given a job in Marra’s office at the State Department, a move that left some people stunned.
“They would say, ‘you’re going to hire that?’” he said.
But Marra knew what he was doing, and he also knew people would eventually come around.
“People started to look beyond his Down Syndrome and just see Nick as Nick,” Marra said.
Marra then went on to give his own advice to those in the audience.
“It’s important to teach that next generation of children that we’re really all the same and have the same goals in life. We all have a skill set. Be all you can be,” he said.
Anne Kaminski , a former special educations instructor and a fellow member on the panel, agreed.
“Over the years, I’ve been bitten, scratched, pushed down, and kicked,” she said. “But I’ve also had the great joy of children saying thank you, raising their hands politely, and learning to read.”
It was a sentiment shared by Sullivan Jr.
“We often say our greatest resource is our youth,” he said. “Well, children with disabilities have dreams and ambitions too.”
And even though IDEA has been amended numerous times since its inception, the foundation is still the same. So on this 40th anniversary, advocates, such as those in attendance on Monday, are pausing to remember Congressman Brademas’ comments to the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 18, 1975.
“This measure is necessary, Mr. Speaker, if we are to insure that all children in the United States receive the free education to which they are entitled.”