Special Education

In the twenty-first century, schooling for children with disabilities is a public responsibility. In the United States, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990, mandated a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for all children and youth, ages three to twenty-one, with disabilities. The law mandates that no child can be excluded from schooling because of a physical, mental, or emotional disability, no matter how severe. It also mandates individualized educational and related services based on an Individual Education Program (IEP) and implemented in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), the setting providing maximum appropriate opportunity to learn together with peers who do not have disabilities. IDEA thus constituted the legal basis for the inclusion movement.

This dramatic public policy development culminated historic trends beginning with the establishment of residential schools in the nineteenth century, largely supplanted in the United States and Europe in the twentieth century by day classes that permitted children to live at home with their families. No longer a philanthropic enterprise, specialized schooling in the United States had come to be recognized as a responsibility of the COMMON SCHOOLS. The history of children with disabilities is often described as steadily increasing educational integration leading, in adulthood, to societal integration and independence. Given this general historical trend, however, each form of disability has a unique and complex history.

Deafness, the oldest special educational challenge, was the first to be addressed through formal schooling. Modeled after Paris's famed National Institute for the Deaf, the Connecticut Asylum for the Education of Deaf and Dumb Persons (later renamed the American School for the Deaf) opened in Hartford on April 15, 1817. Under the leadership of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, a deaf teacher Gallaudet had recruited from the Paris School, the school featured academic instruction, as well as training useful in a trade, incorporating an Americanized version of the French system of manual signing. In time, American Sign Language (ASL) would be recognized as the fully legitimate language of the Deaf communities of the United States and Canada.

A conflicting tradition arose from the centuries-old quest to teach deaf persons to speak, predicated on the belief that speech was essential, not only for integration in the majority society but for reason itself. Through the strong advocacy of (hearing) leaders, notably Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, an international, late-nineteenth-century movement culminated in official adoption of oralism in teaching the deaf, favoring day classes rather than residential schools. Parents, in most instances not themselves deaf, and hearing professionals considered the communication models provided in children's own homes and public schools preferable to the exclusive company of other deaf students. Beginning with Ohio in 1898, successive states mandated funding for day classes, a development facilitated by the new capability to transport students with this relatively low-incidence disability to centralized, yet community-based school sites. However, since Deaf cultural identity issues have parallels among other minorities, conflicts concerning both instructional setting and instructional mode remain unresolved.

Samuel Gridley Howe, a leading nineteenth century reformer, founded Massachusetts' famed Perkins School for the Blind in 1832, then successfully lobbied various state legislatures to establish residential schools for persons (adults, as well as children) who were blind. Yet he, together with his strong ally HORACE MANN, came to oppose such "institutions," increasingly envisioning the day when blind children could attend the common schools. That new era began when in 1900 the Chicago schools formed classes for the blind, intended to foster social integration with sighted classmates. While this Chicago Plan was followed in cities in Ohio and Massachusetts, a major shift from congregate, residential schools to day classes and itinerant specialists (in Braille and orientation and mobility training) did not occur until the 1970s, with the aid of parents' advocacy efforts and a general deinstitutionalization movement.

While efforts to integrate deaf and blind children in regular schools were certainly motivated by concerns for their well-being, another force early in the twentieth century was a growing EUGENICS movement. Some leaders believed educational integration essential to reduce the likelihood of marriage within these communities and thus hereditary transmission of such "defects." In the case of mental RETARDATION (and also epilepsy) eugenics-related fears, erroneously linking various social evils with the condition led to state sterilization laws and more widespread institutional confinement less for the purpose of schooling than to protect society. In the meantime, with general adoption in schools of psychometric testing, by the 1930s states and individual districts were enacting policies to exclude children believed incapable of benefiting from education.

Paralleling the newly established day classes for deaf and for blind students, by 1900 the first special classes had been formed for children who were then referred to as "backward" or "feeble-minded." They were characterized by smaller class size, emphasis on practical life skills, and an individualized approach recognizing differences in readiness, motivation, and pacing. Contributing to this trend was the increasing adoption, especially in large, urban school districts, of psychoeducational clinics, modeled after the clinic Lightner Witner had established in 1896 at the University of Pennsylvania. While school-based clinics played a major role in assessing pupils' eligibility for special class placement (or for school exclusion), Witner's individualized, diagnostic approach would later be influential in education of students with orthopedic or health impairment, social-emotional problems, and specific learning disabilities.

As special classes became more numerous, however, concerns grew that placement was often arbitrary and discriminatory, and by the 1960s, influenced by the civil rights movement, that minority students were inordinately likely to be labeled as "slow" and placed accordingly, or as "disruptive" and placed in the far less numerous classes for students with emotional or behavioral disorders. These concerns, together with growing advocacy by parents of many other children not served by special education, yet not succeeding in school and needing individually appropriate instruction led to IDEA and the era of inclusion.

See also: Education, United States; IQ.


Lane, Harlan. 1992. The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community. New York: Knopf.

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