Education Policy: Research: Historical Overview: Ford:

Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009

The Ford Years: Diagnosis of Disability

By the time P.L. 94-142 took effect in the fall of 1977, special education referrals had increased at an astounding rate. Before passage of the law, less than five percent of the nation's students were diagnosed with disabilities; after federal aid became available, that number doubled to nine percent. In Chicago, the figure climbed to 11.7 percent; in Philadelphia, 12.4 percent; in Baltimore, 14.9 percent; in Boston, 18.4 percent-more than twice the national average and more than six times the average three years earlier. Some contended that, with improved diagnostic techniques and due-process protection, Boston's figures represented an accurate picture of disability in the city. Others, however, noted how arbitrary and fickle diagnoses could be. Inasmuch as P.L. 94-142 entailed a "zero-rejection" clause, all handicapped students, regardless of their degree of disability, were entitled to placement in special education programs unless they explicitly opted out. The idea behind this zero-rejection clause was that no disabled student should be denied services to which he or she was legally entitled. Yet, such a clause was useful only if diagnostic processes were reliable: if schools assigned to special education students who were not disabled, then the idea of "serving all disabled students" would lose credibility. Instead of upholding civil rights by making "appropriate" placements, the schools would be suspected of undermining civil rights by making "discriminatory" placements.


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