PARC v. Pennsylvania:

Pioneering the Right to Education for Children with Cognitive Impairments


Social Perception

Throughout the early 1900's, cognitively impaired children were viewed as "uneducable" and "untrainable" by the public, as well as the educators, medical professionals, and lawmakers tasked with protecting their interests. 

As a consequence of this misperception, there was no legislation protecting many fundamental rights, including the right to education.

Parents of a cognitively impaired child recount their discussions with medical professionals: Courtesy of Nathan Prescott, personal collection, 1960

"We need a social conscience that will not tolerate feeble-minded children in the public schools ... No defectives under any conditions should be allowed in public schools, in country or city."​​​​​​​

~ Dr. Bliss, superintendent of the Indiana School for Feeble Minded Youth, 1920​​​​​​​

Public School Exclusion

"In 1952, only 475,000 of the 3.4 million school age children with cognitive impairments received a free public education."

​​​​​​​~ U.S Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1952

“Jimmy has never gone to school. He almost entered the local public school when he was 6, but his parents were told at registration that the school had no special education program for Jimmy's kind and that the law did not require them to take him."

~ The Daily Item on school exclusion prior to the PARC v. Pennsylvania decision, August 19, 1972

Since school districts had no obligation to provide a public education to cognitively impaired children, the vast majority of these children were refused admission to public school classes. 

Many families could not bear the financial burden of privately educating their cognitively impaired child, and as a result, most cognitively impaired children were homebound with no formal instruction.

Special Education

Furthermore, even children fortunate enough to have a special education program available to them in their school district were often receiving inappropriate instruction.

Classes rarely suited childrens' learning needs or capabilities. Instead they served only as childcare with no substantive educational component.

“School authorities all too frequently see in the special class only a chance to segregate a greater or lesser number of the children ... to remove from the wheels of the educational machine a certain amount of grit that disturbs the smoothness of its running gear...too often it was obvious that there was little or no purpose in view in the training given. Weeks and months of a mentally retarded child’s time might be taken up on the making of a basket or the weaving of a rug, or in doing many things that would never lead to self-support.”​​​​​​​

​​​​​​Dr. V.V. Anderson, National Committee for Mental Hygiene, 1919