Archive: December 20, 2021

A Brief History of Special Education

The relationship between special education and general education is perhaps the most important issue in special education. It has been a major concern in my journey as an educator. This relationship has not been easy to establish between them, as history has shown. It has been a lot more than I would like to say, pulling and pushing, when it comes down to educational policy and the educational practices and special education services provided by human educators on both sides.

Over the past 20 years, I have worked on both sides. I’ve experienced what it was like for a regular teacher to deal with special education students, their teachers and policy. I also worked on the special education side, trying to get regular educators to be more effective with my special education students by adapting their instruction and materials and showing more empathy and patience.

Additionally, I was a regular education teacher and taught regular education inclusion classes. This allowed me to learn how to work best with a new special education teacher in my classroom and their special education students. In contrast, I was a special education inclusion teacher who intruded on the territory and made suggestions for modifications that regular education teachers should make. It has not been easy to manage the special education and regular education give-and-take. This pushing and pulling is not something I can see becoming an easy task anytime soon.

What is special education? What makes special education so unique and complex? Special education is, as the name implies, a special branch of education. It is a specialized branch of education that can be traced back to Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard (1775-1838), who was the physician who “tamed the wild boy of Aveyron,” as well as Anne Sullivan Macy (1866-1936), who was the teacher who “worked wonders” with Helen Keller.

Students with special needs are taught by special educators. Special educators offer instruction that is tailored to each student’s individual needs. This is how special educators make education more accessible and available to students with disabilities.

However, it’s not only teachers who have played a part in the history and development of special education in this nation. Itard- and other clergy members, such as Edouard O. Seguin (1812-1880), Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876) and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1887-1851), all wanted to improve the often neglectful and abusive treatment of persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, the education system in this country was often very abusive and neglectful when it came to students who were different.

Our nation has a wealth of literature that describes how individuals with disabilities were treated in the 1800s and the early 1900s. These stories and the real world show that the disabled population was often kept in prisons and almshouses, without adequate food, clothing, or exercise.

This is illustrated by Tiny Tim, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). People with disabilities were also often depicted as villains in many cases, as was the case in Captain Hook, J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan”, 1911.

According to the authors, this was the dominant view at that time. One should accept misfortunes as a sign of obedience to God and because they are ultimately for one’s good. This way of thinking was permeating society, literature, and thinking made it difficult to make progress for people with disabilities.

What was society to do with these unfortunate people? During the 19th century and the early 20th centuries, experts believed that individuals with disabilities should be treated in rural settings. It’s a kind of out-of-sight, out of mind thing.

But, the number of institutions had exploded so much that rehabilitation for persons with disabilities was no longer possible. Institutions were used to create permanent segregation.

These segregation policies in education have been something I’ve experienced. Some of it can be good, some not so much. I’ve been a self-contained teacher for many years. This includes self-contained classrooms at public middle schools, high schools, and elementary schools. I also taught in special education behavioral self-contained schools, which completely separated troubled students with disabilities from mainstream peers. They were placed in buildings in entirely different locations from their homes, friends, and peers.

Many special education professionals have become critical of the institutions that segregated and separated our disabled children from their peers over time. Irvine Howe was the first person to advocate for removing our youth from these large institutions and placing them in families. This practice was a problem both logistically and pragmatically. It took a while before it became an option to institutionalization for students with disabilities.

On the plus side, you may be interested to know that Gallaudet established the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817. It is still in operation today and is a top school for students with hearing impairments. This is a true success story!

As you can see, the American School for the Deaf’s long-lasting success was not the norm during that time. To make matters worse, environmentalism was replaced by social Darwinism in the late nineteenth century as the primary cause of disabilities that were different from the general population.

Unfortunately, Darwinism was the catalyst for the eugenics movement in the early 20th century. This led to further segregation, and even sterilization of people with disabilities like mental retardation. It sounds like Hitler did it in Germany, but this is happening right here, in our country, to our people by our people. You wouldn’t find this inhumane and scary.

This type of treatment is unacceptable today. In the early 20th century, this was unacceptable to many adults, particularly the parents of disabled children. Parents became angry and formed advocacy groups to bring attention to the education needs of disabled children. If this was to stop, the public needed to witness firsthand how harmful this sterilization and eugenics movement was for students who were different.

Slowly, grassroots groups made progress that led to some states enacting laws to protect citizens with disabilities. In 1930, Peoria, Illinois had its first white cane ordinance. This gave blind individuals the right of way when crossing the street. It was a beginning, and many other states followed suit. Eventually, the pressure from both the local grassroots and state movements led to enough pressure on our elected representatives to make sure that something was done at the national level for people with disabilities.

John F. Kennedy established the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation in 1961. Advocate groups consider Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act to be an expansion of public education for children with disabilities. It provided funding for primary education and was signed by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.

It’s not surprising, if one considers Kennedy’s and Johnsons civil rights record, that these two presidents also led this national movement for people with disabilities.

This federal movement resulted in section 504 being added to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. This section guarantees civil rights to the disabled when federally funded institutions are involved or any program or activity that receives Federal financial assistance. As an educator, I have dealt with 504 cases almost every day for the past 40 years.

1975 Congress passed Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. This law establishes a right for all children to receive public education regardless of their disability. This was another positive thing, as parents used to have to educate their children at home or to pay for private school.

This movement continued to grow. The U.S. Supreme Court clarified the extent of special education services that students with disabilities should receive in the 1982 case of the Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central Schools District v. Rowley. The Court ruled special education services could only be of some educational benefit to students. Public schools did not have to help students with disabilities achieve their educational goals.

Although this ruling might not appear like a victory today, the same question is still circulating through our courts in 2017 with the exact same question. It was, however, a victory given the time it was made. This ruling said that special education students cannot pass through our school system and not learn anything. They had to learn something. Knowing and understanding how laws work in this country will help you to understand that the laws move through small incremental steps that add up over time. Special education students won because this ruling added another rung to the crusade.

The Regular Education Initiative (REI), was established in the 1980s. This was an attempt at returning responsibility for the education students with disabilities to their local schools and regular teachers. Regular Education Initiative is something I’m familiar with because I was an REI teacher for four years in the late 1990s/early 2000s. At that time, I was both a regular and special education teacher. I was also working as an REI teacher in a dual role.

Our special education students saw significant growth in the 1990s. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was created in 1990. This was and still is the foundation of free and appropriate public education for all students. The law required that every student who received special education services be provided with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in order to ensure FAPE.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 90 extended beyond public schools. Title 3 of IDEA prohibits discrimination based on disability in public accommodation. It was expected that everyone would enjoy the same rights and privileges as others when they used public facilities, goods, services, or accommodations. Public accommodations included, of course, most educational institutions.

In the 1990s, full inclusion gained momentum. This meant that all students with disabilities should be educated in the regular classroom. This aspect of education is also something I’m familiar with, having been both a regular and special education teacher.

Let’s now turn to President Bush and his education reform, with his No Child Left Behind law. This replaced President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The 2001 NCLB Act stated that special education should not be confined to producing results. This was accompanied by a sharp increase of accountability for teachers.