As a former teacher and school administrator, Virginia Copeland has spent a career in special education. But as the stepparent of a child with speech and learning disabilities, she has gained a different view of teaching children with disabilities.
Ms. Copeland, who recently retired as a special education director for the Bailey district in suburban Houston, has seen dramatic transformations in the special education system since Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975. And, she said, she has been delighted with the results of the law, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. “I am a firm believer in this law,” she said. “It has provided us with lots of opportunities.”
Progress and Problems
Ms. Copeland began her career as a special education teacher in 1968 at an institution for the mentally retarded in Austin, Texas. Many of the students there would have been included in regular classes and taught work skills today, she said, but at the time it was standard to relegate such students to special schools. That was the case even in Texas, which was already working to include children with disabilities in regular schools and classrooms by 1975.
After what is now the IDEA was passed, Ms. Copeland and her colleagues spent the next few years working to find such children, some of whom had never been to school before. They placed informational brochures in child-care facilities and other locations, conducted special education screenings at schools, and enlisted doctors’ offices to spread the word that children with disabilities were now entitled to educational services.
Later, Ms. Copeland got a different view of the federal law’s workings. In 1978, her stepson, Chris, started school, where he began having problems in reading and communicating. After he was referred for special education, he was diagnosed as having a speech impairment and learning disabilities that entitled him to services under the IDEA. The diagnoses, Ms. Copeland said, were crucial. Now 27, Chris is a college graduate and works as a medical-sales representative.
Ms. Copeland said that the changes brought about under Congress’ 1997 reauthorization of the IDEA were particularly meaningful because they ordered schools to align the curriculum for students with disabilities with the general curriculum.
“The first 20 years of IDEA focused on finding children, identifying, and evaluating them, and creating an [individualized education plan],” Ms. Copeland said. “We saw a lot of focus on a separate curriculum,” which was often fragmented as students were shuffled between regular and special education classes, she said.
Now, she added, “we’re seeing a whole paradigm shift. Special education is no longer a place; it is a service. The supports are being brought to the student.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as Retired Administrator Notes Shift In Federal Law’s Focus