7 minute read

Federal Programs To Assist People With Disabilities

Federal Vocational Rehabilitation Programs, Federal Income Support for People with Disabilities

Programs to assist people with disabilities initiated by the federal government in the early decades of the twentieth century were designed strictly with vocational rehabilitation in mind, that is, with an emphasis on assisting men injured in military service or work-related injuries to sufficiently overcome disabling conditions to return to the work force. Other programs were developed to provide income assistance to workers who were temporarily or permanently disabled and unable to earn an income. The last decades of the twentieth century increased the magnitude of federal programs to protect the rights of people with disabilities in such areas as employment, education, public transportation, and building accessibility. (The term disability instead of handicap and the phrase individual with a disability instead of individual with handicaps reflects legislative language and accepted terminology in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. As with racial and ethnic epithets, the choice of terms to apply to a person with a disability is overlaid with stereotypes, patronizing attitudes, and other emotional connotations. Many individuals with disabilities, and organizations representing such individuals, object to the use of such phrases as handicapped person or the handicapped. Congress has recognized this shift in terminology in all legislative actions since about 1990.)

Federal Vocational Rehabilitation Programs

The earliest federal programs created to develop some level of aid for people with disabilities date to the period following World War I. The Smith-Sears Veterans' Rehabilitation Act of 1918 initiated a program to vocationally rehabilitate veterans who were disabled during the war. The Smith-Fess Act of 1920 (the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act) established the first broad-based federal program to provide vocational assistance to people whose disabilities were not the result of war. This program provided federal funds at a 50 percent matching rate to state rehabilitation agencies for counseling, vocational training, and job placement services for people with physical disabilities.

After the 1920s federal rehabilitation systems initially conceived to serve injured veterans expanded in magnitude. The Social Security Act of 1935 gave permanent status to these federal programs for the first time. Subsequent legislative changes expanded the nature of vocational rehabilitation programs, including the provision of medical services and prosthetic devices; creation of programs to serve people with mental disabilities, migratory workers, and disadvantaged youth; and provision of assistance to families of people with disabilities. The focus of vocational rehabilitation programs remains true to its original foundation of attaining and maintaining employment, although the definition of employment has expanded to support efforts of people with disabilities to gain access to their communities, live independently, and direct the course of their own lives.

Federal Income Support for People with Disabilities

As the United States became more industrialized and sophisticated in its understanding of the role of the federal and state governments in increasing the American standard of living, services for people with disabilities also developed beyond their original mission to include programs that provided support through direct income subsistence to individuals born with disabilities. The Social Security Act of 1935 provided funds to states to assist indigent dependent children, elderly adults, and people who are blind. In the early 1930s, people who were blind, and shortly thereafter, those who were deaf, were the first disability advocates to organize and work collectively to advance their own positions at the federal level. For this reason, the first disability-related institutions in many states, including disability-specific schools, were those that served people who were blind or deaf. While the act also initiated unemployment and old age insurance programs, it did not create a permanent program of disability insurance, although the idea was considered at the time.

As with other disability programs, amendments to the original legislation served to expand the program, in this case by removing the age limitation for eligibility and changing the definition of disability in the Social Security Act. In 1972 Congress created another federal income support program, Supplemental Security Income, that authorized uniform national benefits for people with disabilities, regardless of geographic location. Thus, the next stages in federal involvement led to the beginning of financial assistance and the right of children with disabilities to public education.

Federal Involvement in Access to Education for Children with Disabilities

Federal government involvement in educating children with disabilities generally parallels the development of federal support for elementary and secondary education as a whole. Until the 1960s elementary and secondary education was viewed almost entirely as a state and local function and federal intervention was almost nonexistent. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 (Pub. L. 80-10) was amended in 1966 to specifically provide federal support for the education of children with disabilities through the creation of Title VI. Title VI authorized funds to assist states in the initiation, expansion, and improvement of programs for the education of children with disabilities. Over the next five years, interest groups representing children with disabilities amassed major political support sufficient to expand federal involvement.

The legal underpinnings of the right to education for children with disabilities stems from the civil rights movement and the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. By the early 1970s the foundation was established for federal legislation ensuring the special education of disabled children. Active litigation and legislative efforts enacted from 1964 to 1974 produced strong legal and political support for expanded federal oversight of the education of children with disabilities, most significantly through Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provided the initial protections to children with disabilities in public schools. This act requires nondiscrimination on the basis of disability in all federally conducted and assisted programs. State and local educational agencies (i.e., public school districts) that receive federal funding are required to provide programmatic access for children and others with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act did not mandate special education services, but set the foundation of civil rights protections for people with disabilities.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a dramatic increase in federal involvement for children with disabilities. In 1966 the Bureau of Education of the Handicapped was created within the Office of Education and in 1975 the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA; Pub. L. 94-142) was enacted for the education of children with disabilities needing special education and related services. Since 1975 EAHCA, now renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), has evolved and remains the most significant legislation for special education.

IDEA mandates "a free appropriate public education" for all children with disabilities that require special education services. All fifty states, the District of Columbia, and freely associated states accept federal funding under IDEA and are thus compelled to implement all of IDEA's requirements. IDEA specifies that children with disabilities be educated in the "least restrictive environment" with their nondisabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate. IDEA serves all eligible children with disabilities from birth through age twenty-one, and moves beyond the traditional school-age population aged five to seventeen or eighteen. IDEA extends federally mandated education to all children with disabilities from birth through age three through early intervention services and to young adults with disabilities aged eighteen to twenty-one who have not graduated with a regular high school diploma.

IDEA, together with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA; Pub. L. 101-336), represent the world's most comprehensive civil rights initiatives, providing inclusion in regular educational environments for children with disabilities in public and private elementary and secondary education and for adults with disabilities in public and private colleges and universities in the United States. An exception applies to religiously affiliated or controlled schools, which may be exempt from coverage depending on the specific circumstances.

ADA extends the right to public and private education for all individuals with disabilities in previous areas not covered by federal law, such as activities open to parents or other individuals with disabilities, graduation ceremonies, parent-teacher organization meetings, plays, and adult education classes regardless of the source of funding.


Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. U.S. Public Law 101-336. U.S. Code. Vol. 42, secs. 12101–12213 (Supp. II 1990).

Civil Rights Act of 1964. U.S. Public Law 88-352. U.S. Code. Vol. 42, secs. 2000 et seq.

Civil Rights Act of 1968. U.S. Public Law 90-284. U.S. Code. Vols. 18, 25, 42.

Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. U.S. Public Law 94-142. U.S. Code. Vol. 20, secs. 1232, 1401, 1405–1420, 1453.

Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. U.S. Public Law 80-10. U.S. Code. Vol. 20, secs. 2701 et seq.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997. U.S. Public Law 105-17. U.S. Code. Vol. 20, secs. 1400 et seq.

Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, amended. 1988–1989. U.S. Public Law 93-112. U.S. Code. Vol. 29, secs. 791–794.

TURNBULL, H. RUTHERFORD, and TURNBULL, ANN P. 2000. Free Appropriate Public Education: The Law and Children with Disabilities. Denver, CO: Love Publishing.

YELL, MITCHELL L. 1998. The Law and Special Education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice-Hall.




Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comEducation Encyclopedia