Special Needs History Overview


For centuries, individuals with disabilities were dismissed & exiled from the outside world. Later on, they were institutionalized, denied education & were discriminated against in employment, housing, transportation & in many other aspects. Self-advocates & supportive family members have been persistent in their attempt to bring about change, &  progress has been a result.

Injured veterans became the first lobbyists for services to prepare them to reenter the workforce, after World War I. The Soldiers Rehabilitation Act of 1918, which provided training & financial assistance to veterans with disabilities, laid a base for later legislation addressing extensive needs of the disability community. In 1943, the act was amended to extend services to individuals with intellectual disabilities & mental illness.

Congress established a structure for financial assistance to persons unable to continue working due to disabilities during the 1950s. By 1958, SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) extended benefits to the dependents of such individuals.

Disability Rights

During the 1960s, a disability rights movement emerged after the civil rights & women’s movements. Originating at the University of California, Berkeley, the independent living movement, which further progressed self-determination & de-institutionalization, swept throughout the nation. The Architectural Barriers Act, passed in 1968, required that all federal buildings be accessible to individuals with physical disabilities.

Attention to disability issues increased in the 1970s.  In 1972, federal legislation established a national network of Independent Living Centers to provide information, training and peer support to enable people with disabilities to live as normal as possible within an accepted community. The same year, the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program was started to provide financial assistance to adults with disabilities who had no work history. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 then prohibited discrimination against individuals with a disability by any federal program. By the middle of the decade, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act provided funding for all states for free and appropriate education to children with special needs. The new law highlighted the inclusion of students with disabilities in normal classrooms by the condition taret they be taught in the least restrictive environment possible.


When Reagen approved the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, it marked a turning point for the disabilities movement. Using the Civil Rights Act as a model, it prohibited discrimination based on disability by any local, state or federal program. It required that businesses with more than 15 employees make reasonable accommodations in order to include individuals with disabilities in their workforce. It guaranteed access to public transportation & telecommunications as well as required that restaurants, stores & other public facilities make reasonable modifications in order to be accessible to people with special needs.

The IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) was passed by Congress that same year, building upon the Education of the Handicapped Act. The new law required that students with special needs have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that parents must approve. Schools were also now required to pay for additional services and specialists needed by students to achieve their potential.

With the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1992, funding focused on developing skills that would lead to careers for individuals with special needs & not simply entry-level jobs. At the end of the decade, Ticket to Work & the Work Incentives Improvement Act provided training and other supports to assist SSDI and SSI beneficiaries in finding jobs.