NARRATION: Many schools will hold classes this summer for students who have fallen behind academically after a year of remote learning.
ARCHIVAL (PBS NEWSHOUR, 2-23-16):CLASSROOM OF CHILDREN: One, two three, four.
ZAKIYAH ANSARI: If we know general education children are suffering, then theres no doubt in our minds that students with disabilities are struggling even more.
NARRATION: During Covid, special education students lost many of the services they are entitled to under federal law. Those rights were hard won 50 years ago by parents whose children were often denied the right to go to school at all.
LISA VASQUEZ: Like a face. Look at Montana.
JASIEL: Wait, wait, wait. Let me see.
LISA VASQUEZ: My two children, they both have IEPs, which stands for Individualized Education Plan, which calls for them to receive speech and language services language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and a one-to-one teacher.
Im 27 years old. I live in Staten Island. Im a single mother to two children. Jazmiahs nine, and my son Jasiel is five. The education system currently is, is failing them.
ZAKIYAH ANSARI (ADVOCACY DIRECTOR, ALLIANCE FOR QUALITY EDUCATION): Its not as easy as it should be for parents to be able to get what they need for their children in regards to special education services. Pre-Covid there were constant stories from parents. A lot of times children were being taught under a stairwell, or in a makeshift closet that wound up having to be made into a classroom.
NARRATION: Vasquez says her daughter, who has special needs, has not received the full complement of services she requires.
LISA VASQUEZ: Weve been suffering long before the pandemic. I fought to try to get my daughter placed in a state-approved school. She attended briefly. And you know, then the pandemic happened.
NARRATION: The origins of the special education system, which today serves the needs of children with mild to profound disabilities, date back 50 years when parents fought to ensure their children would get a chance to attend public school.
MARK ALTER (PROFESSOR OF EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY): Many kids with disabilities in New York City, but around the country, were not in public school. The message was very clear: You cant learn like other kids because youre different.
NARRATION: It was a time when children were routinely barred from attending public school with their peers on the basis of IQ. Thousands ended up being locked away in so-called state schoolsmassive residential institutions like Pennhurst outside Philadelphia.
JAMES CONROY (CO-PRESIDENT, PENNHURST MEMORIAL AND PRESERVATION ALLIANCE): Pennhurst opened in 1908 for the care and support of people with what is now intellectual disability. In those days, the term was feeble-minded. And so society provided a way for families to put their children, thinking it was like a boarding school, a place that was safe, and they would learn when they couldnt learn in public school very easily. Nobody knew how to teach kids who were different.
NARRATION: Then, in July 1968, for five straight nights on local television in Philadelphia, a reporter named Bill Baldini showed families, and the public, what was really happening to children inside Pennhurst.
ARCHIVAL (YOUTUBE, 1968):BILL BALDINI: The horrible and almost inhumane conditions that prevail at Pennhurst. The children, as they are all called, who are rotting in their cages, cribs and beds, can thank society for their dreadful plight.
JAMES CONROY: It brought into peoples living rooms what we had never seen before. Stuff that was so hidden from society.
ARCHIVAL (YOUTUBE, 1968):BILL BALDINI: We ship them 25 miles out of town to a state operated institution and forget them while they decay from neglect.
JAMES CONROY: There could be 50 men or 50 women in a big room, mostly naked, absolutely uncontrolled, hitting each other, self-stimulating, feces, naked. I think that broke the dam in American culture. No more could we all say, we didnt know.
AUDREY COCCIA: I was horrified as a young mom. I thought that could be somebody I love.
NARRATION: Audrey Coccia watched the reports on TV and remembers thinking about the fate of her youngest daughter Gina.
AUDREY COCCIA: My daughter was born with significant disabilities, mostly intellectual, developmental. She was five before she walked. And she also, she didnt chew until she was about 11 or 12. Gina was not considered trainable or educable. And so therefore, she was not eligible to go to school.
NARRATION: State officials urged her to put Gina in Pennhurst, the only way the state would pay for her training. Coccia refused and kept her at home.
AUDREY COCCIA: You know, once Bill Baldini did this thing on TV, I knew thats not somewhere she was going to go. And if I could help, I was going to help other people get out of there.
ARCHIVAL (SUFFER THE CHILDREN):EDITH TAYLOR (PARENT ADVOCATE): There is no reason in this day and age with federal funds available for such a place to exist.
NARRATION: Outraged by what they saw, parent groups wanted to file a lawsuit either to close Pennhurst or fix it. Their attorney Thomas Gilhool proposed a different strategy: sue for the right to go to school.
JAMES CONROY: Because thats the number one reason why children get sent to Pennhurst, because theyre not allowed in public schools.
NARRATION: The 1971 case ended with a landmark decree giving all children with disabilities the right to a free public education a right codified in federal law since 1975.
MARK ALTER: All of a sudden, we have this court case that says there are kids out there who are going to be going to public school and they have a right to go to public school. Now, lets educate them. It doesnt mean the kid is going to be put into General Ed or that the kids are going to get chemistry and physics. Theyre supposed to start almost with a blank state. Its not an autistic kid. Its not an emotionally disturbed kid. Its not a kid with an intellectual disability. Its a kid.
NARRATION: The decree meant Gina Coccia was finally allowed to enroll in public school. Her mother Audrey became active in the disability rights movement that closed Pennhurst and institutions like it.
MARK ALTER: Many of the organizations, parent-generated, parent-run, laid the foundation that exists to this day ensuring that kids receive an appropriate education.
NARRATION: Today, schools are required by law to provide services to children with all levels of needs, at a cost of tens of billions a year. But the pandemic highlighted chronic problems. There is a shortage of trained teachers and students with disabilities who are low income, or students of color, often have fewer services available to them.
ZAKIYAH ANSARI: We have to unpack and address educational racism. These children are the ones that wind up getting suspended. These young people are the ones that lose interest in learning, if we dont do things the right way.
NARRATION: And Lisa Vasquez is still unsure what her childrens education will look like when in-person learning resumes this fall.
LISA VAZQUEZ: All the odds are stacked against us. I have to wake up every day and fight, and if its going to take me the rest of my life to achieve justice, then so be it.