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The History of Special Education in the Twentieth

Updated August 16, 2022

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During the twentieth century, drastic changes were made to vastly improve the special education system to ensure that all students, regardless of their ability, were given equal rights according to the Constitution of the United States. During early colonial America, schooling was not mandatory and it was primarily given to the wealthy Anglo-Saxon children. Children were mainly taught in the home or in a single room schoolhouse. Therefore, children of limited mental capability were not likely to be schooled. Also, in a non-graded schoolhouse, children of differing abilities did not pose problems. With the beginning of mandatory education in 1852 and the influx of large numbers of immigrants with their children, America was faced for the first time with educating a heterogeneous group of students. These children had diverse social and cultural backgrounds, as well as something the educators of the previous, homogenous schools had not been forced to deal with. Many of these children showed signs of various learning, developmental, physical, and emotional behavioral problems.

During the 1920’s, separate schools were established for the blind, deaf, and more severely retarded. However, students that were considered mildly disabled were educated in regular schools, just thought to be ‘slow learners’. Soon educators started to develop separate classes for disabled students. The reasoning for taking them out of the normal classroom (exclusion) has not changed in the last eighty years. People today, who are still in favor of exclusion, have the same justification for their belief. It was thought that students with special needs required separate classrooms, where they would receive individualized attention and instruction. In these special classrooms, a specially trained teacher would provide the instruction. As ideal as this might sound, it is hardly what did occur. The optimism of the educators to successfully teach the disabled students faded during the 1930’s and the 1940’s. Special education classes were held under horrible conditions. The rooms were insufficient, with limited resources, the teachers were poorly trained and the curriculum was inadequate.

Schools also often classified students as having disabilities when they did not. Additionally, students were often labeled with one type disability when they had another. This practice (misclassification)was a common discrimination in American schools. One might wonder why the conditions were so deplorable. Why were the teachers so terribly unqualified? It appears that the common perception of the disabled students was like that of Quasimodo, in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. They were misunderstood, and considered to be monstrous–something to be hidden away, shunned and rejected by ‘normal’ people. The public’s attitude with disabled children was one of fear, as if the disability was somehow contagious. They were looked upon as ‘crazy’ people. This general outlook set the standard for educating students with special needs. They were classified as inferior, so why should the school system bother to work with ‘the retards’? The mind-set was that these students were ‘untrainable’ so they were not of worthy satisfactory conditions and competent teachers. In the course of the 1950’s, parents started to become vocal about the outrageous conditions of the special education classes. Then, greatly encouraged by the Civil Rights movement, advocates for students with disabilities began to sue state and local officials.

Their main argument was that exclusion and misclassification violated the students’ rights to an equal educational opportunity under the United States Constitution. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decided that schools are not allowed to segregate their students by race. In view of that, the advocates argued, schools may also not segregate students by their ability. After all, students are students, regardless of their race or ability. The advocates for equal right in education, proved to be successful in pleading their case. On October 7th, 1971, a federal court ordered Pennsylvania to provide a free public education to all retarded children. The next year, a federal judge ordered Washington, D.C. to offer educational facilities to all handicapped and emotionally disturbed children. These legislations served three main purposes.

The first was to provide a free and appropriate education to all students with disabilities, a right that was long overdue. The second purpose was to educate students with special needs in the same school and, to the maximum extent, the same programs as their non-disabled peers. The third purpose was to put into effect a ‘checks-and-balances’ system so that students with disabilities have legal recourse in the case of a school not living up to the requirements made by the law. Three pioneers of special education envisioned a different profession. They had new ideas on how to serve children with disabilities.In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, they began to vocalize their criticism for the old system and ideas to rectify the problems. By showing these new ways, they paved the way for modern special education. As early as 1968, Lloyd Dunn began to question the efficiency of placing students with mild disabilities into special classes. It was his belief that children must stop being labeled as ‘mentally retarded’. “Furthermore,” Dunn states, “we must stop segregating them by placing them into our allegedly special programs.” Dunn argued that special educators should assume fundamentally new roles. They should work with general education teachers, providing them with resources and consultation.

In doing that, many students could remain in general education and avoid separate placements all together. In advocating mainstreaming for those with mild disabilities, Dunn also emphasized the importance of special education placement rather than exclusion for those students with severe disabilities. As previously stated, children with more pronounced or severe disabilities were considered outcasts and excluded from school altogether. Dunn also questioned the need for disability labeling. Instead, he suggested using labels that describe the nature of the education that the student was going to receive, such as language or cognitive development. Dunn’s ideas caused educators to become more aware of the needs for non-discriminatory assessments and placement in general education settings. In 1970, another activist, Evelyn Deno, published an article, “Special Education as Developmental Capital”. She was committed to making schools more responsive to diversity among children. Deno challenged that the special education system should improve the effectiveness of public school education for all students. Deno offered the concept of a cascade of services to reshape the school system.

“The cascade system is designed to make available whatever different-from-the- mainstream kind of setting is required to control the warning variables deemed critical for the individual case.” Deno’s major argument was in favor of individualized, student-centered education and against system-centered sorting. It was the blueprint for the placement options that are major parts of federal and state special education laws and practices. In 1972, James Gallagher voiced his concern that students with mild disabilities were being retained in classes that were not assisting them, seeing as their need for specialized education had expired. This contract would safeguard against incorrect and permanent placements, as well as help educators emphasize students’ strengths and positive contributions. Gallagher stated that “placement of primary school age, or mildly retarded, or disturbed, or learning disabled children in a special education unit would require a contract signed between parents and educators, with specific goals and a clear time limit.” Gallagher’s ideas, modified to some extent, resurfaced just three years later.The modified version found its way into a federal law in the form of an individualized education program (IEP), and a due process of hearing.

The advocates’ success culminated 1975 when, on November 29, President Gerald Ford signed the Education of All Handicapped Students Act (EHA). This act authorized state grants to help give all handicapped children a free and appropriate education, and also tried to combat the misclassification and exclusion of school age children between the ages of six and eighteen. As EHA was being executed, and schools became more and more accessible and appropriate for those students with disabilities, Congress was willing to include more children under EHA’s protection. In 1983 and 1986, Congress amended the law to provide early childhood special education for children ages three to five. It was also believed that children with disabilities could also use assistance in the transition from childhood to adulthood. Congress amended the law again to ensure that students age sixteen and older would have an education, specifically geared towards helping them to become independent, productive, and included in the mainstream of American life.  The U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Programs administers the programs mandated by EHA. Each state education agency must develop their own regulations and guidelines that conform to the federal regulations before the state can receive federal funding for the programs.

EHA established how federal money is to be given and spent in the program. When the EHA was first implemented in the 1977-78 school year and until around the mid-1980’s, the term that describes the education of students with disabilities alongside those who did not have disabilities is mainstreaming. Mainstreaming was defined as “the educational arrangement of placing handicapped students in regular classes with their non-handicapped peers to the maximum extent appropriate.” Mainstreaming was generally applied within the non-academic areas of curriculum, such as art, music, and physical education. Most of these students were still enrolled in self-contained special education classes—they ‘visited’ general education classes for a small part of the day. For many educators and parents, the concept of mainstreaming provided too little and came much too late to help the students.

Their impatience led to another movement: the Regular Education Initiative. In 1986, the Regular Education Initiative (REI) debate began. Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services for the U.S. Department of Education, Madeleine Will, spoke out against special education services. She stated that the services excluded many students who needed special education services (exclusion, once again), or withheld special programs until the student fails; rather than supplying the special education prior to failure.

Will also claimed that school was isolating students placed in special education from their peers and general school activities. Madeleine Will approached the REI with her mentally disabled son, Jon, in mind. She had a vision that adult independence and a network of friends could, and in fact, should be the outcome of special education. Her tireless efforts caused many significant changes in the entire approach to special education.

New concepts of inclusion and collaboration evolved from the REI. The Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 was amended by Congress in 1990, and renamed Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The new IDEA required schools to integrate special needs students into regular classrooms. Under IDEA, special needs students are entitled to free special services, such as laptop computers, tape recorders, and tailored homework assignments. They can also be given extra time on standardized tests, or be given the tests orally, if the need so demands. Schools found to be non-compliant with the legislation were mandated to justify why they were not in compliance.

IDEA is such an extensive law that it is divided into several parts, the main parts being parts A, B, and C. Part A tells on what grounds Congress justifies IDEA; it also describes the purposes and policies that Congress intends to implement by enacting IDEA. Part B declares the rights of students between the ages of three and twenty-one. Part C benefits infants and toddlers. IDEA defines special education as specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of a student with a disability. There is a two part standard for eligibility for special education. First, there must be a categorical element, (the student must have a disability) and second, there must be a functional element (the disability must cause the student to need specially designed instruction).

Under IDEA, the specially designed instruction is free, provided in a variety of settings and includes related services. While keeping in mind that Part B of IDEA concerns student’s ages three to twenty-one, these students must have a disability that affects their ability to learn as stated above. The following elements are justifiable in IDEA’s perception of a need for special services: specific learning disability, emotional disturbance, mental retardation, autism, physical disabilities, traumatic brain injury, speech or language impairments, hearing impairments (including deafness), and visual impairments (including blindness) (IDEA) early childhood special education, while in the same category, may include children who are experiencing delays in physical, cognitive, communication, social and/or emotional developments. Those developmental delays could require special education and its services (IDEA) Part C of IDEA concerns infants and toddlers, as already mentioned.

These children either need early intervention services, (most likely due to developmental delays) or have already been diagnosed with a physical or mental disability that has a high probability of resulting in a developmental delay. Early intervention services must be provided by qualified personnel and in the same environment (if possible) that the child would be in, had they not had the disability. (IDEA) It is not enough for IDEA to simply identify the students who are entitled to benefit from the legislation. It is also necessary for IDEA to specify exactly what benefits (or rights) are given to the students. IDEA does that very plainly, setting up six principles to govern the education of students with disabilities. The principles are as follows (IDEA): 6.Parental and student participation The first four principles describe what the schools contribute to the student.

Zero rejection is a rule against excluding any student. Non-discrimatory evaluation requires schools to fairly evaluate students to see if they have a disability, and if so, what kind and how extensive. Appropriate education requires schools to provide IEP’s (Individualized Education Program) for children ages three through twenty-one, and IFSP’s (Individualized Family Services Plan) for infants and toddlers. They are also required to augment the programs with related services and supplementary aids and materials. Once a school has enrolled the student, fairly evaluated them, and provided an appropriate education plan, there is one more thing IDEA calls for. That is education with the students who don’t have special needs in the least restrictive environment (LRE). That concept is also known as mainstreaming, integration, and inclusion. The last two principles are more like checks and balances, which ensures the results of special education are what they should be. Procedural due process is a safeguard for students to ensure their full IDEA rights. This principle also gives them the option to sue in a court of law if their rights are violated.

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The History of Special Education in the Twentieth. (2019, Mar 28). Retrieved from