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Changes in Services for Persons With Developmental Disabilities: Federal Laws and Philosophical Perspectives

The 1970s saw the initiation of critical advances in laws governing delivery of services to individuals with disabilities. These landmark legal changes and the process of deinstitutionalization have had a profound impact on where individuals with an intellectual disability (ID) reside and where their educational services are provided. Subsequent legislation emphasizing service delivery in natural environments that include typical peers has implications for inclusive practices across the life span, as many adults with ID transition into community-based living settings.

The following is a summary of landmark federal laws responsible for changes in services for persons with ID.

1975 The Education for All Handicapped Children's Act (PL 94-142)
  • Mandated free public education for all handicapped children in the least restrictive environment
1978 Rehabilitation, Comprehensive Services, & Developmental Disabilities Amendments of 1978 (PL 95-602)
  • Substituted a functional definition of developmental disabilities
  • Provided funding for independent living centers
1990 The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 (PL 101-336)
  • Provided civil rights protection to persons with disabilities in the area of employment, public accommodations, and government services
  • Prohibited discrimination on the basis of disabilities
1994 Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act Amendments (PL 103-230)
  • Provided assistance to ensure that all persons with developmental disabilities receive the services, assistance, and opportunities necessary to enable them to achieve their maximum potential
  • Enhanced the role of the family in assisting persons with developmental disabilities
1994 Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act Amendments of 1994 (PL 100-407 & PL 103-218)
  • Provided financial assistance to states to support technology-related assistance for individuals with disabilities
1997 Policy Directive of the Federal Rehabilitative Services Administration (RSA PD 97-04 of the Department of Education)
  • Required state agencies to approve vocational goals and services to enable persons with disabilities to maximize their employment potential
1997 The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments (IDEA) of 1997 (PL 105-71)
  • Required that states provide a free and appropriate public education to children ages 321 years who have a disability
  • Special education and related services provided at public expense and in the least restrictive environment

For current information on IDEA and ADA, see Building the Legacy: IDEA 2004 and Information and Technical Assistance on the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Collectively, these legislative changes helped alter the legal status of individuals with ID (Brady et al., 2016) and have stimulated general social and institutional acceptance of the rights of persons with ID. These changes have resulted in

    • a new level of respect for the person, beyond the disability;
    • recognition of the importance communication plays in making choices and life decisions for individuals with ID;
    • increased access or eligibility for services, regardless of cognitive functioning;
    • involvement of families in the assessment and program-planning process;
    • services that are individualized and appropriate;
    • inclusion of culturally and linguistically appropriate practices in the assessment and intervention;
    • planning for individuals with ID from diverse groups;
    • opportunities for interactions with a variety of individuals in natural environments; and
    • knowledge of prevention practices.

Each of these rights for individuals with ID leads to principles that guide the roles and responsibilities of audiologists and SLPs in their service to persons with ID.


Brady, N. C., Bruce, S., Goldman, A., Erickson, K., Mineo, B., Ogletree, B. T., . . . Wilkinson, K. (2016). Communication services and supports for individuals with severe disabilities: Guidance for assessment and intervention. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 121, 121–138.

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