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March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month

Adults with disabilities and the parents of children with disabilities know all too well the barriers they face in getting a quality education or finding employment opportunities. Though the U.S. has made strides in support for people with developmental disabilities, there is still a long way to go.

President Ronald Reagan first proclaimed March “Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month” back in 1987. The move was a formal step in the deinstitutionalization movement that began in the seventies, and was part of a push to support "encouragement and opportunities" for people with developmental disabilities.

Education support for children with disabilities is fairly recent. Prior to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), public schools in the U.S. generally accommodated only 1 out of every 5 children with disabilities. States could and did exclude children with certain types of disabilities from public school, including children who were blind or deaf, and children who were deemed "emotionally disturbed" or "mentally retarded." In 1975, when EAHCA was enacted, there were more than 1 million U.S. children with no access to the public school system, living in state institutions. There were also close to 3.5 million children who were in facilities with little or no basic education. More than 6 million U.S. children now receive special education.

In 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was signed, which gave children with special needs the legal right to a "free and appropriate" education. Under both IDEA and EAHCA, special education services are required to meet the unique learning needs of each child with disabilities, for preschool through age 21, to prepare them for employment and independent living.

The IDEA was designed to address the educational needs of children with disabilities from birth to age 18, or 21, for 14 specified categories of disability. Parents and educators must work together to develop Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) to tailor lessons and approaches to work best with each student with special needs. But as children change school systems or graduate from one school to the next, their support network can be left behind. Students with special needs become adults with special needs, and the system is not equipped to support them adequately. Adults with special needs face a high unemployment rate, long waits for residential placement, and a maze of government bureaucracies they must navigate in order to qualify for benefits.

Michael Gilfix is an estate planning attorney in Palo Alto California and is one of the pioneers of elder law. 

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