The History of Special Education

Blog 7

           I got my master’s degree in special education in 1995 from the University of Hartford. Since then, I have spent a good part of three decades working in and out of the special education classrooms in public education. And the thing tickling my fancy now that I’m in the first cohort of the CT Aspiring Leadership Academy for Special Education and going over the history of special education is how much special education history I have forgotten and how much I didn’t know. Also, I have been exposed to things over my lifetime that didn’t dawn on me as falling within the special education realm. I mean, those little truant boys from the little rascals probably somehow fell under special education, but that thought never crossed my mind until now.

I must admit that as a high school history teacher and a special education teacher, I’m dual certified; I find the history of special education somewhat fascinating. Most Americans haven’t heard of Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard or his attempt to fix the feral boy or wild boy, later named Victor of Aveyron in France, back in the late 1700s. That in itself is a special education teacher practicing his craft way back when people weren’t really thinking about special education.

Another fascinating historical moment is right here in the United States with Helen Keller. Most Americans have heard of Hellen Keller, the deaf, blind, and mute girl that could only make animal-like noises until a special teacher appeared on the scene.

Her teacher Anne Sullivan pulled off the impossible and got Hellen Keller to perform in society at such levels that she could attend and graduate from Harvard University. Hellen Keller also wrote books, did many speaking tours, and became world-famous.

Thanks to our school studies, we all know of Hellen Keller’s accomplishments. However, we’re not so aware that her teacher, Anne Sullivan, would today be classified as a special education teacher. No one ever mentions that it took a special education teacher to produce the amazing world-famous Hellen Keller.

And since I was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and have been a resident of Connecticut for all of my life, I take special pride in knowing that in 1817 the first special education school in the United States was established in Hartford Connecticut. Today, that school is still there, and it’s called the American School for the Deaf. It was called the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb back in the day. When one traces the history of special education, one comes across some funny names that we wouldn’t think are politically correct today.

Ironically my wife worked in the group homes of the Connecticut Institute for the Blind (CIB). While my wife worked there, the thought of special education didn’t enter my mind. Nor did special education enter my mind when my wife and mother-in-law worked in several other group homes for various groups of handicapped or disabled people. My wife and mother-in-law’s jobs are a product of the movement of deinstitutionalizing the disabled and putting them back into the community and schools.

The environmental approach in the late 1800s turned into huge institutions that failed to hold on to the magic and success of the early environmentalists who believed if they could get the handicapped in one place, they could give them intensive help and make some good progress. The institutions got too big, and the expertise died off. Budget cuts and a constant eye on the bottom line led to horror shows, as mentioned before with the Willowbrook institution, where there was only one worker for every 50 patients. Around the mid-1900s and later, efforts were made to bring the disabled back home.

And sandwiched between the environmental learning theories and the deinstitutional theories was Charles Darwin’s theory of social Darwinism or the survival of the fittest. This led to more isolation or segregation, the eugenics movement, and people with mental retardation sterilization.

But, I have gotten ahead of myself here. Let me back up some. Being a high school history teacher, I am well aware of the flood of immigrants we had around the turn of the 20th Century. I am well aware of how we tried to Americanize the immigrants, assimilate the Indians, and teach both parties to speak English. I didn’t realize that those classes teaching immigrants and Native Americans fell under special education.

In addition, I have worked in many special education self-containment behavioral classrooms over the years. And for my entire life, I have seen kids that didn’t know how to behave on television, like the Little Rascals. I have heard the term “reform school” used in old shows and movies. But for some reason, I just didn’t put two and two together to realize that I’m teaching yesteryear’s reform school children today in my special education self-contained classrooms and programs. And while I’m not very familiar with the old term “House of Refuge,” I am very familiar with the type of emotionally disturbed children and how to teach them. Once again, another connection of mine to the history of special education just flew right over my head without me noticing it before I enrolled in the CT Aspiring Leadership Academy.

As a history teacher, I have taught my students about the World Fair of 1904 in Chicago, known as the White City. I shared the inventions, the architect, and how the fair was lit up by Tesler’s alternating current (AC) electricity that would later overcome and replace Edison’s direct current (DC) as our primary power source in this country. However, I didn’t know until recently that at that same World Fair of 1904, procedures for identifying “defectives” were included in the new and innovative things we were introduced to the world that year in Chicago. I’m thinking that you can probably guess what they meant by the term defectives.

The identification process that came out of the 1904 World Fair must have been pretty effective. By the 1920s, special education classes for students considered unsuitable for regular classes became standard in most US cities.

However, just because there were some special classes for what would be considered special education students, it didn’t mean that the ‘defectives’ had any actual rights and protections from the rest of society. But that would change some in the 1930s in Peoria, Illinois when the first white can ordinance came about. This new local law gave blind people the right-of-way when crossing the street. By mid-century, and with some help from the Civil Rights Movement, all states had some kind of legislation providing for the education of handicapped students. Also, in the 1950s, President Eisenhower had a handicapped daughter, so he pushed for deaf and vision impaired legislation to be passed.

Eventually, the individual education program (IEP) comes along. This is during my lifetime. In 1975, IEPs began under the Education for All Handicap Children Act (EHA). The IEPs were built for the unique needs of disabled children. Under the EHA, the education of students with disabilities became federally controlled. Due process for families also came about in this period. This was the first law that gave families equal say in what happens to their children. I was still way too young to know any of this as a kid. But, I did study this stuff years later at the University of Hartford when I was earning my special education master’s degree.

In the 1980s, the Regular Education Initiative (REI) tried to return the education of disabled students more fully to the neighborhood schools. I spent a few years as an REI teacher in the late 1990s. Not sure if these two REI things were linked or not. Also, in 1986, CT Senator Lowell Weicker, who later would become Connecticut’s Governor, pushed for additional preschool grants under IDEA Part B in Section 619.

In the 1990s, when I was in grad school and beginning my teaching career, the full-inclusion movement was gaining momentum for our disabled students in the regular education classrooms. The 2002 PJ Case in Connecticut turned up the heat on being more inclusive with our handicapped students. For years, I have seen the box on the IEPs asking how many hours a day/week the disabled students spend with nondisabled students.

Some other things that stuck in my memory from back in the mid-90s at the University of Hartford were the Individual with Disability Education Act (IDEA) and the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). IDEA replaced EHA in 1990. And in that legislation, I learned about Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for all disabled kids.

Furthermore, I can still remember my college professor, Professor Nelson, explaining LRE to me. He said you never want to take a machine gun approach to a problem when you can just use a flyswatter. Thus, a special education kid struggling might not need to be isolated in some classroom somewhere if he could just get a little extra help and support through accommodations and modifications in a regular education classroom, which would also be the least restrictive environment. And it is also good for socialization for both the disabled and nondisabled students.

The relationship between special education (SPED) and regular education (Reg.Ed.) has been rough since the beginning of universal public education. And because IDEA is amended and reauthorized every few years, who knows what the future of SPED holds. Some are pushing for disabled students to be fully immersed in Reg. Ed. classrooms with just one dually certified teacher like I am with a content degree and a special education degree. Others worry that without the separate name and law and resources special education provides, it would only be a matter of time before those who watch the bottom line would find a way to diminish or even phase out special education.

I know I have only scratched the surface of the history of special education. And on the other end of this spectrum, I also know that only time will tell how the special education road will wind through the future.