In 1991 five families filed a case on behalf of their school aged children, against the Connecticut Board of Education, several local school districts, and other officials, alleging violations of the IDEA. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law which sets guidelines for the education of children with special needs in the public schools. The suit, called PJ vs the state of Connecticut, claimed that school systems were not providing education for children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment possible. The letters “PJ” are the initials of the first child for whom the suit was filed. The plaintiffs wanted their children to spend the maximum amount of time appropriate with their non-disabled peers. Prior to the initiation of the suit, most children with disabilities spent the majority, if not all of their school day, in a self contained environment with little to no interaction with their non-disabled peers. The suit quickly turned into a class action suit on behalf of all school aged children with the diagnosis of an intellectual disability (ID). Intellectual disabilities are conditions which affect the cognitive functioning of an individual such as Autism, Down syndrome, Fragile X, and Prader-Willi.
The case was finally settled in 2002 with five goals being established and monitored. The first goal states that there must be an increase in the percentage of children with disabilities who spend 80% of their day in regular classrooms with non-disabled peers. The second goal states there should be a decrease in the disparate identification of children by race, gender, or ethnicity. The third goal states that there should be an increase in the percentage of the day in which children with disabilities are integrated with their non-disabled peers. Fourth, the settlement calls for an increase in percentage of children with ID who attend their home school, or school they would normally attend if not diagnosed with a disability. Finally the suit sets a fifth goal that calls for an increase in the percentage of children with intellectual disabilities who participate in extracurricular activities with non-disabled peers.
Furthermore, the settlement dictates that the State Board of Education issue a policy advocating for the integration of children with ID into regular classrooms with their non-disabled peers to the extent appropriate for each child. It also outlines guidelines for monitoring progress toward these objectives and expectations for teacher training.
Thanks to PJ vs the state of Connecticut, thousands of children with intellectual disabilities are now enjoying more time in the “regular” classroom just like any other student. They also can participate in extra-curricular activities with everyone else. Slowly the distinctions between children with special needs and the rest of the student body are fading. There still is a long way to go, but we will get there one step at a time.
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