Children, adolescents and adults who lived during the early part of the 21st Century had very little protections granted to them to help guard them against the sometimes inhumane manner in which they were treated.  

This included having their very basic needs being met, along with others gaining a better understanding of how to meet the different needs of individuals with disabilities.  Often, young people and adults who displayed any type of serious condition, or who were different from the norm, were often kept isolated and locked away in mental institutions for the sick, as society did not know how to properly care for and educate people with disabilities.  Luckily, this is not the case today.  

People who once faced ridicule and isolation due to their special conditions only a few decades ago now have professional educators, researchers, doctors, and others who are better equipped in not only determining what specific disorder a person may have, but also in providing others with a specialized plan, often called an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), 

which states the unique and specific plan of action that is to be taken to help support the learner in the least restrictive environment possible, one that gives others the educational tools and resources they need to succeed.  

Let’s take a look at some moments throughout history that eventually led to the creation of new laws and protections for people, and others with special needs: 

Fernald State School

During the middle of the 19th Century, Fernald State School was a school located in Waltham, Massachusetts.  Founded in 1848 by Walter E. Fernald, the school served young boys with limited intelligence, and was used as a dumping ground for children who had intellectual difficulties.  The children often lived in crowded, unsterilized rooms of more than 35 children per room, and were not properly cleansed. They received a poor education, when compared to others who were not attending the institution, and were humiliated when they did not know the answers to questions on a regular basis.  Also, the children were subjected to physical abuse as well.  

One of the most disturbing incidents was when some of the students signed up to join the “Science Club” at the facility.  In this club, children were exposed to harmful and often life-altering experiments, such as when they were made to eat cereal that had radioactive materials in it that gave off atomic, explosive energy and caused major bodily disruptions when eaten. This experiment, which was led by researchers, was definitely dangerous, and now there are laws that exist to protect individuals from these types of inhumane experimentations, as well as the startling discoveries made later on by Marie Curie regarding radioactive elements during the 20th Century. 

There are many moments throughout history that have shaped not only the laws that we currently have today, but also helped others to understand the many different types of disabilities and conditions that people were not aware of before. Three major laws include: 

1.  Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Also known as IDEA, this law came into being around 1990 and ensures that special education students receive the most appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible, or one that does not place great restrictions upon students. It allows children to be educated in the least restricted environment, which involves children with special educational needs being educated with general education students. This is known as “inclusion” and includes special education students being taught with their non-disabled classmates when possible. 

2. “No Child Left Behind:” is an act that was incorporated in 2001 that ensures that schools will be held accountable for the education of all students, and that regular assessments should be performed by schools to determine the educational progress of all students.   This act also provides incentives and bonuses to schools whose students receive high marks on assessments, along with options for families to change schools if needed due to poor educational outcomes.  

3. Americans with Disabilities Act: (ADA) Have you ever seen the wheelchair ramps that are found on walkways that are used to help wheelchair-bound individuals enter a building?  That is there largely in part due to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which helps ensure that the right accommodations are made for people who have disabilities.  Also, bathrooms and other commonly used areas and facilities are designed to accommodate people with disabilities.

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