More Information about the IDEIA and Rehabilitation Act

History of Special Education and Traumatic Brain Injury

In 1975, Congress enacted a much-needed new law. This was Public Law 94–142, and it was called the Education of All Handicapped Children Act. This law guaranteed a free, appropriate education to students who have certain specified types of disabilities and who require special education. This law has been amended and is now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The 1997 reauthorization legislation for IDEIA is Public Law 105-17.

IDEA (20 U.S.C. Sec. 1400–1485) provides federal money to state and local education agencies to help them educate students with special needs at all ages:

An important part of IDEA was the addition of "traumatic brain injury" as a specific category of students with special educational needs. Before traumatic brain injury was added to IDEA, these students often were incorrectly classified as learning disabled, mentally retarded, or emotionally disturbed.

Making a category for "traumatic brain injury" was intended to improve the early identification of these children so that educational programs could address their specific and unique needs. However, in trying to define traumatic brain injury, many students with non-traumatic brain injuries were excluded. The present federal definition of traumatic brain injury only covers injuries to the brain caused by an external physical force and reads as follows:

"Traumatic brain injury means an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. The term does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or brain injuries induced by birth trauma."

(Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 1991)

The exclusion of students with brain injuries caused by "internal" trauma (strokes, anoxia, infectious disease, etc.) from the educational category of traumatic brain injury continues to be debated. Many states have broadened the definition by emphasizing that there has been "an injury to the brain" rather than specifying how it occurred. In New Hampshire's education law, the definition of brain injury is exactly the same as that in the federal law.