The History of Special Education

The connection between special education and general education is perhaps the most significant and pervasive issue in both my own educational journey and that of special education. This has never been a straightforward relationship between the two, as history has demonstrated. When it comes to educational policy, as well as the educational practices and services of education and special education, there has been a lot of giving and taking—or perhaps I should say pulling and pushing—by human educators like me who provide those services on both sides of the isle.

I've been on both sides of education for more than two decades. I have experienced what it was like for a typical mainstream educator to deal with special education students, policy, and specialized teachers. In addition, I have worked in special education and tried to get regular education teachers to work with my special education students more effectively by modifying their materials and instruction and showing a little more patience and empathy.

In addition, I have worked as a mainstream regular education teacher and taught regular education inclusion classes, attempting to determine the most effective way to collaborate with a new special education teacher in my class and their special education students. On the other hand, as a special education inclusion teacher, I have stepped into the sphere of influence of some regular education teachers by introducing modifications to my special education students that I believed these teachers should make. I can tell you from personal experience that this exchange between regular education and special education has not been easy. I also do not anticipate this pulling and pushing becoming simple anytime soon.

What exactly is special education then? And what is it that makes it so unique, yet also so complicated and controversial at times? As its name suggests, special education is a specialized area of education. It says that Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, a physician who "tamed" the "wild boy of Aveyron," and Anne Sullivan Macy, a teacher who "worked miracles" with Helen Keller, are its ancestors.

Students with differing physical, cognitive, language, learning, sensory, and/or emotional abilities are taught by special education teachers. Special educators provide instruction that is tailored specifically to each student's unique requirements. Basically, these teachers make education more available and accessible to students who otherwise wouldn't be able to attend school because of a disability.

However, the history of special education in this country is shaped by more than just teachers. Edouard O. Seguin (1812-1880), Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876), and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787–1851) were among the clergy and physicians who sought to ameliorate the neglectful and frequently abusive treatment of people with disabilities. Sadly, when it came to dealing with students who were different in some way, education in this country was frequently very neglectful and abusive.

Our nation even has a lot of literature that talks about how people with disabilities were treated in the 1800s and early 1900s. Sadly, the disabled population of our country was frequently confined in jails and almshouses without access to adequate food, clothing, personal hygiene, or exercise in these stories as well as in the real world.

Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) provides a good illustration of this distinct approach in our literature. Additionally, people with disabilities were frequently portrayed as villains, such as Captain Hook in J.M. Barrie's 1911 novel "Peter Pan."

The authors of this time believed that one should accept difficulties as a form of obedience to God's will and that these apparent difficulties are ultimately intended for one's own benefit. With this way of thinking permeating our society, literature, and thinking, it was difficult to achieve progress for our people with disabilities at this time.

So, what was society to do with these unfortunate people? Well, professionals believed that residential facilities in rural areas were the best places to treat people with disabilities for most of the nineteenth century and early twentieth. A case of "out of sight, out of mind," if you will. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, these institutions had grown to such a large extent that the goal of rehabilitation for people with disabilities was no longer being achieved. Institutions evolved into instruments of ongoing segregation.

I have some knowledge of these educational segregation policies. There are positive and negative aspects to it. You see, I have occasionally worked as a self-contained teacher in various settings, including self-contained classrooms in public high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools. I have also taught in a number of special education behavioral self-contained schools that put troubled students with disabilities in completely different buildings, sometimes even in different towns, from their homes, friends, and mainstream peers to help them manage their behavior.

Our children with disabilities were kept apart from their peers at these institutions, which were criticized over time by a number of special education professionals. Irvine Howe was one of the first to advocate for placing our residents in families and removing our youth from these large institutions. Sadly, this practice became a logistical and practical issue, necessitating a lengthy period of time before it could be a viable alternative to institutionalization for our disabled students.

On the plus side, you might be interested to learn that Gallaudet founded the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, which is now known as the American School for the Deaf, in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. This was the first special education school in the United States. One of the best schools in the nation for students with auditory disabilities still exists in that location today. a true story of success!

However, as you can already imagine, the American School for the Deaf's long-term success was the exception rather than the norm during this time. In addition, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, social Darwinism took over from environmentalism as the primary cause of those with disabilities who differed from the general population.

Sadly, the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century was facilitated by Darwinism. As a result, people with disabilities like mental retardation were further segregated and even sterilized. It appears as though something Hitler was doing in Germany is also being done here, to our own people, by our own people. Would you agree that it's kind of terrifying and cruel?

This kind of treatment is clearly unacceptable in today's society. In addition, it was unacceptable to some adults in the early 20th century, particularly to the parents of these disabled children. As a result, concerned and irate parents established advocacy groups to support raising awareness of the educational requirements of children with disabilities. If the eugenics and sterilization movement was ever to be stopped, the public needed to see for themselves how harmful it was to our diverse students.

Slowly, grassroots organizations advanced to the point where some states enacted legislation to safeguard their citizens with disabilities. For instance, in 1930, the first white cane ordinance in Peoria, Illinois, gave people who were blind the right to cross the street. This was a start, and eventually, other states followed suit. With time, this grassroots movement on a local level and the movement in the states put enough pressure on our elected officials to get something done on a national level for our disabled people.

The President's Panel on Mental Illness was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Additionally, in 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which expanded access to public education for children with disabilities and provided funding for primary education.

Given the civil rights records of Kennedy and Johnson, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that these two presidents also led this national movement for people with disabilities.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the result of this federal movement. In the context of federally funded institutions or any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance, this guarantees the disabled's civil rights. After all these years, I still teach and deal with 504 cases every day.

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), which established a right to public education for all children regardless of disability, was enacted by Congress in 1975. This was also a good thing because before federal law, most parents had to educate their kids at home or pay for expensive private schools.

The movement continued to grow. The level of services that should be provided to students with special needs was clarified by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of the Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley in 1982. The Court ruled that students receiving special education services only need to receive some "educational benefit." Students with disabilities were not required to make the most of their educational progress in public schools.

This decision may not appear to be a victory in today's world. In fact, the same issue is still before our courts in 2017! However, considering its time period, it was a victory because it stated that special education students could not enter our educational system without acquiring any knowledge. They had to acquire some knowledge. If one knows how the laws in this country work, they will know that they always move in small steps that add up to bigger ones over time. Students in special education gained a victory as a result of this ruling because it added one more step to the fight.

The Regular Education Initiative (REI) was established in the 1980s. This was an attempt to delegate the education of students with disabilities to regular classroom teachers and local schools. Because I worked as a Regular Education Initiative teacher for four years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I am very familiar with the program. I was working as an REI teacher while simultaneously holding certifications as a special education teacher and a regular education teacher at this point; because the position demanded that you do so.

Our special education students saw significant progress in the 1990s. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was enacted in 1990. The idea of providing all of our students with a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) was and still is based on this. The law required that each student receiving special education services also receive an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in order to guarantee FAPE.

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act extended beyond public education. Additionally, disability-based discrimination was outlawed in all public accommodations under Title 3 of the IDEA. It was anticipated that all of the goods, services, facilities, and accommodations in public places would be enjoyed equally. Naturally, the majority of educational facilities were also considered public accommodations.

Additionally, the full inclusion movement gained a lot of traction in the 1990s. As a result, all students with disabilities needed to be educated in the regular classroom. Because I have also worked as an inclusion teacher from time to time throughout my career as an educator on both sides of the isle—as a regular education teacher and a special education teacher—I am also very familiar with this aspect of education.

Now let's talk about President Bush and the educational reform he implemented with his No Child Left Behind law, which took the place of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that was passed by President Johnson. The 2001 NCLB Act mandated that special education continue to focus on achieving results and significantly increased educator accountability.

The NCLB Act had both good and bad aspects. Naturally, everyone wants the same things for all of our students, and it makes sense that accountability helps with this. This kind of went awry because the NCLB required a slew of new things but did not provide the funds or support necessary to accomplish these new goals.

Teachers also began to feel squeezed and threatened by the new movement of big business and corporate education entering education and taking control. People with no formal education now had access to a significant amount of educational funding and were able to influence education policy.

This accountability craze, which was caused by too much standardized testing, spread quickly and, of course, came from a lot of well-connected elite Trump-like figures telling lower-level educators, "You're fired!" It was not good for our educators to work in an environment where teachers were being beaten up on our students with testing strategies while simultaneously trying to avoid detection in order to keep their jobs. It was detrimental to our students. Additionally, it was unfavorable for our special education students who were more at risk.

However, this era produced some positive results. For instance, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was amended in 2004. This made it even more necessary for schools to provide individualized or special education for children who met the criteria. States that accept public funds for education are required by the IDEA to offer special education to children with disabilities who meet certain criteria. As I mentioned earlier, enforcing the law is a long, slow process in which incremental progress is made over time.

Finally, President Obama's Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) took over from President Johnson's ESEA in place of President Johnson's NCLB in 2015. Schools were now permitted to halt some testing under Obama's new ESSA. Hopefully, the craze for standardized testing has subsided. Nevertheless, time will tell. Additionally, ESSA reverted to more local control. The kind of control our ancestors intended, you know.

The United States Constitution, after all, does not give the federal government any authority over education. The United States Constitution makes no mention of education, and for good reason. The majority of life's decisions should be made by those closest to them, either by state or local government or by families, businesses, and other members of civil society, as the Founders intended. In essence, they did not see any function for the federal government in education.

You have to understand that the Founders were afraid of a power grab. Limiting and dividing power, they believed, was the best strategy for safeguarding individual liberty and civil society. However, this works in both directions because states frequently request additional funding for education from the federal government. And the federal government will only give the states more money if the states do what the federal government wants... Hmm... Checks and balances and reaching a compromise can be very difficult, don't they?

As a result, the fight over education and the tug-of-war between the federal government, state and local governments, special education, and regular education continue. In addition, in a lawsuit brought against the state by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Judge Moukawsher, a state judge from Connecticut, sent a message to legislators in his ruling to reevaluate the level of services that students with significant disabilities are entitled to.

It would appear from his ruling and statements that he believes we are overspending on special education students. Additionally, that some of them simply cannot afford it due to their severe disabilities. You can probably imagine how controversial and upsetting this was for some people.

Few anticipated the outcome of the 2016 United States Presidential election. After winning the presidency, real estate tycoon and reality star Donald Trump appointed Betsy Devos, an opponent of public education, to lead this nation's Department of Education. Trump has given her the task of cutting the Department of Education in half and promoting private charter schools over what they claim is a failing public education system.

Nobody knows for sure how this will affect our students, particularly those in special education who are more at risk. However, I am also able to inform you that not many people are currently at ease with it. As previously stated, the connection between special education and general education may be the most significant and pervasive issue. Time will tell where all of this will lead and how it will affect our special education students. Over the course of all these years, our nation's and my journeys through the vast field of education have been interesting, challenging, and, to put it mildly, fraught with controversy.