Education for All Handicapped
November 29, 1975
The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, often referred to as P.L. 94–142, fundamentally changed how disabled students are treated in American schools.1 It established, as a matter of national principle, that every child—including those with disabilities or handicaps—is guaranteed a free and appropriate public education: “The passage of [P.L. 94–142] was about getting the doors open and acknowledging that kids were supposed to be in school.”2 Beyond this, the act required that disabled students be educated in “the least restrictive environment"; that is, they could no longer automatically be segregated from the general school population. Finally, P.L. 94–142 empowered parents of disabled students, investing them with due-process rights to help ensure that their children's unique needs are met. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act significantly changed the operation of all public schools, and, more important, dramatically changed the school experience for millions of disabled children.
The federal government had taken some modest steps to address the needs of disabled children prior to P.L. 94–142—P.L. 85–926 in 1958 provided source funding to train teachers dealing with children with mental retardation, and amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act allowed Title I monies to be used for special education, but responsibility overwhelmingly remained with the states and local school districts. The inadequacy of state and local efforts was made clear by the advocacy work of several groups and by two landmark legal cases, as will be detailed below. It was clear in the early 1970s that far greater action was needed on behalf