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 and policies 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
1986 Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments of 1986: Title I—Handicapped Infants and Toddlers (Public Law 99-457)
  • Included early intervention services to infants and toddlers aged birth–2 years
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
1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990 (Public Law 101-476)
  • Reauthorized the Education for All Handicapped Children Act with the new name IDEA
  • Added traumatic brain injury and autism as new disability categories
  • Mandated transition from high school to adulthood
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
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
2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) of 2004 (Public Law 108-446)
  • Most recently reauthorized IDEA
  • Solidified alignment and inclusion of students with disabilities within the accountability system of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as the Every Student Succeeds Act

Assistive Technology Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-364)

  • Provided financial assistance to states to support technology-related assistance for individuals with disabilities

Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (Public Law 114-95)

  • Most recently reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act
  • Made technical changes to IDEA and ensured greater inclusion of students with disabilities in the general accountability system
  • Defined “specialized instructional support personnel” comprehensively, including related service providers that are defined in IDEA
  • Included new terms such as “positive behavioral interventions and supports” (PBIS) and “multi-tier system of supports” (MTSS)

Rosa’s Law (82 FR 31910)

  • Changed references to “mental retardation” in Federal law to “intellectual disability” or “intellectual disabilities”

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;
    • the involvement of families in assessment and program-planning processes;
    • provision of services that are individualized and appropriate;
    • the inclusion of culturally and linguistically appropriate practices in the assessment and intervention;
    • planning for individuals with ID from diverse groups; and
    • opportunities for interactions with a variety of individuals in natural environments.

Each of these rights for individuals with ID leads to principles that guide the roles and responsibilities of audiologists and speech-language pathologists 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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