Students with disabilities achieved historic gains with the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA). It mandated “that all children with disabilities have available to them… a free appropriate public education.” Along with requiring the IEP, this law enshrined the “least restrictive environment” concept, resulting in more children educated within general classrooms.
“I graduated with a regular diploma just like everybody else in my class.”
As a child with cerebral palsy in Richland City, Indiana, Andy Imlay was “mainstreamed” into regular classes from first through twelfth grades. Segregated classes were still common. “I mean in the ‘80s you didn't hear of this stuff,” recalled Imlay. “And I graduated with a regular diploma just like everybody else in my class.”
The EHA focused attention on early intervention, which was largely absent. In 1974, Dixie Patterson had been thrilled when she found a Preschool for Handicapped Children at a Presbyterian church in Bloomington, Indiana for their two-year old daughter. “We got her into that little preschool program, and we were just very, very fortunate because the lady was very ahead of her time.” The director made sure the children were able to play with kids without disabilities. Jennifer attended until it closed several years later. Indiana’s program for infants and toddlers, First Steps, started in 1986 and was made possible by the EHA.
At the other end of the age span, the EHA put transition services in place. It recognized the importance of preparation and planning for the student’s post-secondary life. Nancy Kalina, a former Work Study Coordinator at Bloomington North High School, describes the enormous challenge faced by students and their families when school and associated services terminate. At age 23, “it's like all of a sudden the bottom drops out.” In 2014, the Indiana School-to-Work Collaborative research project began addressing these needs, using a team approach to provide transition-age youth and their families with resources such as work and internship opportunities and employment coaching.
For some students, transition planning can enable more challenging learning experiences after high school. “Just in the last 10 years, the notion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities going to postsecondary education is becoming a possibility,” said David Mank, former director of the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community. In Indiana, Vincennes University, Franklin College, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, and many others have begun to support students with intellectual disabilities to be full participants in academic life.