In the first decades of the 20th century, every state enacted laws to segregate handicapped people from the rest of society, leaving special education, for the most part, the province of private schools.

Then, partly as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, groups of parents took their cases to courts across America. The rulings, in lawsuits that were repeated throughout the nation, struck down legislation that separated handicapped children from regular classes as a violation of their civil rights.

"It's funny," said Frederick J. Weintraub, legislative director of The Council for Exceptional Children. "It was the language of Brown v. Board of Education. But it took us more than 20 years to realize those same civil rights applied to handicapped students and black students."

Two court cases made it impossible for educators to keep their doors closed any longer. Many educators say that the case in the District of Columbia, Mills v. the Board of Education, was the more important of the two. The other was a Pennsylvania case.

"Mills was the case," said Thomas K. Gilhool, one of the lawyers on the team that sued the D.C. school board on behalf of those children suffering from physical, mental or emotional handicaps who could not get a free public education. "That decision solidly laid the groundwork for all the procedural safeguards in the federal law."

The decision had national impact because it was the first to state explicitly that handicapped children had a constitutional right to a public education.

On Aug. 1, 1972, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph C. Waddy directed the D.C. school system to establish procedures under which no student could be placed in a special education program or be suspended from school for more than two days without a public hearing.

Within two years, more than 36 cases were pending or had been resolved in 24 states involving the educational rights of handicapped children; in every case the children won.

Many of the people who worked on the federal law said that the court rulings were like giant dominoes falling: They forced state legislators to enact laws prohibiting discrimination, and those laws forced the federal government to recognize its financial responsibility to handicapped students.

The District and its school board conceded during long litigation in the Mills case that it had an obligation to provide public education for the handicapped.

However, as was the case in many cities, D.C. government and school officials said they were unable to overcome the obstacles and provide education to all the handicapped children in the District.

"With Mills we finally got what we needed," said Lisa Walker, who was a leading proponent of the federal law as a staff member on Capitol Hill. "We got a judge to say the hell with all the obstacles."