History Note – March 2024

Brown versus Board of Education opened doors for disability education One frequent lesson in school history classes centers on Brown […]

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Brown versus Board of Education opened doors for disability education

One frequent lesson in school history classes centers on Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The legal fight, which ended 70 years ago, is remembered for integrating public schools. Many people may not realize that the historic civil rights case also played a key role in prohibiting segregation on the basis of disability. 

The case was decided in May 1954. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous ruling, decreeing that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling ended a “separate but equal” precedent the high court had set in another case,  Plessy versus Ferguson. 

Histories of Brown versus Board of Education tell us that it took more than a year to decide how the ruling would be imposed and how states were to start implementing desegregation plans. Both the original ruling and the 1955 follow-up met much resistance. This not only came from racial segregationists. It came from some constitutional scholars, who believed the high court overstepped its authority. 

For students with disabilities, their parents and their allies, the key finding in Brown versus Board of Education is that “separate facilities are inherently unequal.” 

The 1954 decision was hailed as opening doors for every student. But it took a long time for that to happen. Inclusive education for children with disabilities was one of the first goals of the parents’ movement that was growing at that same time. Parents were demanding better options for their disabled children, especially children with developmental disabilities. They spoke out against sending their children to state institutions. 

In 1953, one year before the Brown decision, legendary advocate Elizabeth Monroe Boggs prepared the Association for Retarded Children position statement, ”Education Bill of Rights for the Retarded Child.” It stated that every child, including those with developmental disabilities, “has the right to a program of education and training suited to his particular needs and carried forward in the environment most favorable for him, whether that be the community public school, the state residential school or his own home.” 

Boggs was not only a scientist and researcher. She was also the mother of a son with developmental disabilities. She co-founded the National Association of Retarded Children in 1950, served on the organization’s board of directors from 1950-1953, and as its president from 1956 to 1958. She held numerous state and federal posts related to disability. 

The Brown court case and the parents’ movement were instrumental in disability legislation at the state and federal levels, including the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, which we know today as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. Both were also factors in the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. 

Many people across the United States took the fight for a free and equal public education to court. Others joined school boards and disability advocacy organizations. One of the cases was Mills versus the District of Columbia Board of Education. Mills held that no child could be denied a public education because of “mental, behavioral, physical, or emotional handicaps or deficiencies.” 

The question of resources came up in the 1972 Mills case, as school district representatives cited the need for adequate federal funding to provide education. The judge responded that funds must be spent equitably so that no child is excluded from a public education consistent with his needs and ability to benefit. 

A disability timeline, with links and details on court cases, is on the MNCDD website. 
The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at www.mnddc.org 

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