Special Education

Lobbying for Change: A Parent’s View

By Joetta L. Sack — November 29, 2000 3 min read

In 1968, Martha Ziegler was preparing to send her 4-year-old daughter with autism to school. So she called her local school district to inquire about the types of programs it had for autistic students.

“The administrator there said, ‘Oh, we’re thinking about starting some programs for the mentally retarded, but there’s nothing for autism,’” she recalled. “Of course, that was perfectly legal.”

IDEA 25:
Progress and Problems
Part I:
IDEA Opens Doors, Fans Controversy
‘I Know That I Am Here for a Reason’
Lobbying for Change: A Parent’s View
Retired Administrator Notes Shift In Federal Law’s Focus
Table: A Rising Tide of Disabilities
Charts: The Changing Nature Of Students’ Disabilities
Part II:
Schools Grapple With Reality Of Ambitious Law
Teacher’s Career Spans Changes Spurred by 1975 Law
‘They Accept Me For Who I Am’
Chart: A Sharp Rise in Federal Special Education Funding

Little did she know it then, but that response would propel her into a full-time role as a parent activist, lobbying for state and federal laws to guarantee access to education for children with disabilities. She and other parents have been the driving force behind such laws, and like many others, Ms. Ziegler, a former college English professor, has devoted much of her life to helping others obtain educational services for their children.

Until Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, there was no guarantee that a student with a disability would receive a free and appropriate public education, as the groundbreaking federal law stipulates. Every state and district varied in its philosophy and services for special education.

Parents were the driving factor behind the law’s passage: For years, they had organized, filed lawsuits, and badgered their local districts to provide educational services for their children with disabilities. Ms. Ziegler was one of the many parents who brought emotional stories to Congress and their state legislatures.

The education path of Ms. Ziegler’s daughter, Mary Ann, offers a case study on the uneven state of affairs in pre-1975 special education. As the Ziegler family moved, young Mary Ann went from attending a regular public school to a special preschool to a private school. Sometimes, the state or health insurance paid a portion of the costs of her education and related services; other times, the Zieglers bore out- of-pocket expenses.

Massachusetts Law

Finally, the Zieglers settled in Lexington, Mass., in 1971. The state was then embroiled in debate over a new law to guarantee special education to “the maximum feasible benefit” for a student—a revolutionary concept at the time and a standard higher than the one that would be embodied in the 1975 federal law.

Ms. Ziegler joined the dozens of parents and other advocates who spent their days at the statehouse lobbying legislators; the Massachusetts law was passed in July 1972. Shortly after that, Ms. Ziegler and other parents founded the Federation for Children with Special Needs.

“We knew parents would need a lot of training and information” about the new law, she said. “From day one, we were deluged with business.”


Earlier this year, Massachusetts rewrote its special education law and eliminated its far-reaching “maximum feasible benefit” language. (“Mass. Lawmakers Vote To Change Special Ed. Standard,” Aug. 2, 2000.)

Eventually, Mary Ann Ziegler was placed in a regular classroom, where she learned academic subjects alongside her peers who did not have disabilities.

Her mother served as the executive director of the federation from 1975 to 1997 and traveled extensively to work with other parents and fight for better enforcement of special education laws. Ms. Ziegler is still active in local, national, and international special education issues from her home in Cambridge, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as Lobbying for Change: A Parent’s View


Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Engaging Young Students to Accelerate Math Learning
Join learning scientists and inspiring district leaders, for a timely panel discussion addressing a school district’s approach to doubling and tripling Math gains during Covid. What started as a goal to address learning gaps in
Content provided by Age of Learning & Digital Promise, Harlingen CISD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education 'They Already Feel Like Bad Students.' A Special Educator Reflects on Virtual Teaching
In a year of remote teaching, a high school special ed teacher has seen some of his students struggle and some thrive.
4 min read
Tray Robinson, a special education teacher, sits for a photo at Vasona Lake County Park in Los Gatos, Calif., on April 21, 2021.
Tray Robinson, a special education teacher, says remote learning has provided new ways for some of his students to soar, and has made others want to quit.
Sarahbeth Maney for Education Week
Special Education What the Research Says Gifted Education Comes Up Short for Low-Income and Black Students
Wildly disparate gifted education programs can give a minor boost in reading, but the benefits mainly accrue to wealthy and white students.
8 min read
Silhouette of group of students with data overlay.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Special Education What the Research Says Most Students With Disabilities Still Attend Remotely. Teachers Say They're Falling Behind
A new survey finds that students with disabilities are struggling in virtual classes, even with added support from teachers.
3 min read
Image shows a young femal student working on a computer from phone, interfacing with an adult female.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Special Education Whitepaper
A Comprehensive Guide to the IEP Process
Download this guide to learn strategies for bringing together all stakeholders to plan an IEP that addresses the whole child; using relia...
Content provided by n2y