Any IDEA?: Examining the Barriers Faced by the Disabled in the American Education System

For the greater part of American history, school-aged children with disabilities had lacked access to the public education system, either due to lack of physical access to buildings and transportation, or lack of specialized educational support. Over time, social, legislative, and technological revolutions have changed this so that all disabled students can attend public school and have guaranteed access to at least a high school diploma. Nevertheless, substantial barriers persist in the modern day; public school funding remains relatively low in many areas, leaving few funds available for accessibility initiatives, and the social stigma surrounding disability leaves many students with disabilities either pariah among their peers or misunderstood and improperly educated by their teachers and administrators. This explains, in part, why the disabled face un- and underemployment rates much higher than the United States population as a whole, and why they often have trouble accessing education leading to meaningful careers. In order for the economic and social situation of the disabled to improve, educational access must optimize accessibility measures and actively work against social stigmas which hold disabled students back.

Prior to the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (EAHCA), there existed no federal law mandating that disabled children in America had to go to public school, and with the barriers that existed for them, many would not have attended adequate public schooling. The act — which itself arose out of the recognition by the federal government that students had the right to an “adequate” education — appropriates funds to states for them to provide an “acceptable” education to students with mental, physical, or emotional disabilities. It also mandates that, whenever possible and appropriate to the student’s disability, disabled students should take classes with non-disabled students as to assimilate students into the overall school culture[1]. In part because of the several amendments needed to address gaps in the EAHCA, and partially because of weak protections for the disabled, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is enacted in 1989. The IDEA serves a few purposes. First, it serves to define disability, with eleven different groupings thereof; these groupings, according the legislation, factor in disabilities, such as developmental delays and orthopedic impairments, that could interfere with a student’s ability to access a full opportunity. Based on the disability and the scope of its impact on a student’s ability to receive an education, the IDEA allows for the provision of each student with an “individualized education program,” an IEP, which, written in collaboration with the school district and the parents of the student, outlines the necessary accommodations to a student’s education[2]. Under the IDEA, the goal of an IEP is to ensure permanent, guaranteed access to a “free appropriate public education.” In addition to the IEP, the IDEA modifies punishment and discipline protocols for disabled students, categorizing mentally disabled students’ behavior patterns as “manifestation” and “non-manifestation” behavior (i.e., behavioral issues that do or do not result from the nature of the student’s disability, respectively) [3]. Thus, by nature, the IDEA focuses primarily on students with cognitive and behavioral disorders; even so, it can be applied to students with physical disabilities — sometimes appropriately, but other times not. For example, the IDEA mandates that schools must provide schooling in the most suitable setting for disabled students, even if this education takes place in a non-traditional school or in a homebound structure[4]. However, other provisions of the IDEA are at times falsely applied to physically-disabled students. Going back to the idea of “manifestation” and “non-manifestation” behavior, a teacher not properly trained in psychology — and not necessarily to their own fault — may wind up inappropriately punishing students with mental or physical disabilities. Because of these difficulties in applying the provisions of the IDEA, discrepancies result between schools and school districts with different demographics; more specifically, minority students with disabilities often fail to receive the accommodations and treatment they need. [5] African-American students with disabilities are substantially more likely to receive suspensions than are white students with and without disabilities, and are more likely to attend schools in school districts that cannot afford to properly fund the special education programs — such as individualized education — that they need[6]. This perpetuates the ever-present “school-to-prison” pipeline in the American education system — particularly in public schools that serve minority-majority and urban areas[7].

In a broader sense, legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, has attempted to provide accessibility for the disabled in society at large, with its provisions also applying to public schools; however, its application in public and private schools alike has proved challenging, thus creating a patchwork of uncertainty and inaccessibility for many disabled students. The ADA, mandates, in part, that buildings that provide services to the public must be “reasonably” accessible for the disabled, and provides no funds for buildings that were before inaccessible to be modified[8]. This presents two unique challenges: first, the definition of “reasonable,” and second, the funding of modifications for buildings that are either difficult to modify or are in poorly-funded regions of the country. This has led to many public schools following the letter of the law, but not necessarily the spirit of the law: based on ADA requirements on paper, the government could accept their modifications as reasonable, even if the disabled still cannot fully access the school or its resources without impediment. In the context of public schools, this could mean that students with disabilities have difficulty navigating classrooms, school resources and common rooms, or school buildings themselves — especially in poor or urban areas where renovations for the purpose of accessibility cost significant amounts of money in the face of a lack of government funding. Furthermore, many private schools have yet to modernize and accommodate for changes called for by ADA — as private institutions do not always have to follow the same set of government regulations, including those for disabled access — meaning that otherwise capable and qualified disabled students lack access to a private education as private schools often lack even more so than their public counterparts the resources and adaptations needed to serve disabled students[9]. Private schools sometimes lack even the most basic accommodation measures, such as elevators and ramps (as, if placed in old buildings, private schools can circumvent accessibility regulations by citing them as “unreasonable”), and seldom provide special education resources such as individualized education and paraprofessionals, as they can choose the students they admit — and can thus elect not to admit a student with a disability[10]. Though outright discrimination against the disabled is illegal — and thus a school that denies a qualified student on the sole basis of their disability does so illegally — it can elect not to admit a student to whom they cannot provide services and accommodations with anything above “minor adjustments.”[11]

On top of the physical barriers of inaccessible buildings and lack of resources, the disabled face a general lack of acceptance from their peers and of understanding from their teachers and administrators. Disabled students face bullying more frequently than their non-disabled counterparts, and often lack the resources they need to handle such situations — even if counselors available in schools and colleges have training in psychology, their lack of consistent exposure to students with disabilities may hinder their ability to provide specialized advice and aide. This problem, in fact, continues onto college campuses; while in the context of colleges and universities in the United States, it remains unclear if disabled students face harassment and abuse more frequently than the non-disabled, there exists a noted lack of resources — such as counselling and therapy from professionals experienced to exposure with disabled students — for disabled students who have been subjected to abuse[12]. This causes a challenge for college campuses and students alike: As the regulations of the ADA have gone into effect, more disabled students have attended college[13]; however, if colleges lack realistically-useful accommodations (despite their fitting into the letter of the law) or social resources for the disabled — as disabled students may perceive stigma in requesting them — the disabled student’s educational attainment can be impaired. This explains why the college retention rate for students with disabilities falls short of that for non-disabled students, and why disabled students who do remain in the tertiary education system may struggle academically more so than their non-disabled counterparts [14]. Even in educational setting where administrators have the funding and resources to respond to the needs of the disabled, stigmas and stereotypes surrounding the disabled often prevent a full understanding of the issue at hand. In the case of students with physical disabilities, for example, many educators and administrators may be subject to the preconception that the nature of their disability impacts their cognitive and behavioral functions as well, even if the disorder does not. This leads certain textbooks to have to explain that students with disabilities, such as physical disabilities, add to classroom diversity and do not necessarily learn at a different pace than their non-disabled peers[15]. Continued misconceptions such as these explain the hindered student outcomes for those with disabilities, particularly, as previously discussed, the fact that the rate of college dropout amongst disabled students is higher and that the path towards academic excellence for disabled students is riddled with physical, social, and academic barriers.

The barriers that the disabled have faced in the American education system reach far into the history of the education system and cause real and profound challenges in the present day, as for the majority of American history, the very chance of receiving an education remained out of reach for most disabled students, and only have recent legislative acts, such as EAHCA, IDEA, and ADA, changed this. Yet, barriers in these pieces of legislations’ applications persist: These continued barriers undermine the American promise to provide an education for all students, and presents challenges for disabled students that transition from the education system to the workforce. The disabled as a whole face higher rates of unemployment and substantially lower participation in the workforce; among those that do manage to find employment, the positions are often lower-wage jobs than those taken by the non-disabled and less gainful financially and professionally. While part of this has to do with the culture of individual businesses, which may not necessarily accept disabled workers as a part of a diverse team of professionals, part of this stems from the lack of training, resources, and programs originating in the public school system[16]. Improvements in order for students of all abilities to achieve their full potential, engage fully in American life and culture, and contribute to the economy include ensuring the physical access of all schools, public and private; the funding of special education programs, especially in already underfunded districts; a recognition amongst peers, teachers, and administrators that a disability does not necessarily define the confines of one’s educational potential; and the broad recognition in society that disability often only impedes an individual as much as society tells that very individual it must serve as an impediment. With these improvements in physical access and culture, a more inclusive, productive, and educational school system will improve quality for disabled and non-disabled students alike.


[1] “Enforcing the Right to an ‘Appropriate’ Education: The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975.” Harvard Law Review, 1979. 1103. JSTOR Journals, EBSCOhost.

[2] Lusk, Sarah. “The Dimming Light of the IDEA: The Need to Reevaluate the Definition of a Free Appropriate Public Education.” Pace Law Review 36, no. 1 (Fall2015 2015): 295–296. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost

[3] Ibid., 296.

[4] Lusk, Sarah. Ibid., 297–298.

[5] Yell, Mitchell L., and Tim Conroy. “Disabled Education: A Critical Analysis of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.” History Of Education Quarterly 55, no. 4 (November 2015): 495.

[6] Lusk, Sarah. Ibid., 293.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Leake, David W., and Robert A. Stodden. “Higher Education and Disability: Past and Future of Underrepresented Populations.” Journal Of Postsecondary Education And Disability 27, no. 4 (December 1, 2014): 399–400.

[9] Rosenbaum, Stephen A.1. “Preserving Public Values in the Private Sector: Unintended Consequences or Vouching for Ableism-Free Schools?.” Journal Of Law & Education 45, no. 3 (Summer2016 2016): 370–371.

[10] Ibid., 378–379.

[11] Ibid., 379.

[12] Findley, Patricia A., Sara-Beth Plummer, and Sarah McMahon. “Exploring the experiences of abuse of college students with disabilities.” Journal Of Interpersonal Violence 31, no. 17 (October 2016): 2801–2823.

[13] Leake, David W., and Robert A. Stodden. “Higher Education and Disability: Past and Future of Underrepresented Populations.” Journal Of Postsecondary Education And Disability 27, no. 4 (December 1, 2014): 400.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ryan, K. and J.M. Cooper (2013). Those Who Can, Teach (14th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin., 71–77.

[16] Santuzzi, Alecia M., and Pamela R. Waltz. “Disability in the workplace: A unique and variable identity.” Journal Of Management 42, no. 5 (July 2016): 1111–1135.

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