History Of Special Education Essay

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The special education movement can be characterized as having three major phases, exclusion and isolation, access and inclusion, and accountability and empowerment. Historically, up until the mid-1960s and 1970s, disability was viewed as an abnormality or “freak of nature,” and individuals who had disabilities were forced into isolation and exclusion. During the civil rights era through the 1980s, parents and advocates pushed to shift this perspective and gain rights for individuals with disabilities through access and inclusion. From the 1990s to the present, individuals with disabilities have become empowered and are working toward redefining their role and identity in society as a cultural phenomenon rather than inferior to able-bodied, able-minded individuals in the dominant mainstream. Additionally, systems such as case law and statutes, public and private programs, and advocacy organizations have been created to make schools accountable for providing equal educational opportunity for all students, including individuals with disabilities. This entry reviews the political and social aspects that influenced each of these historical phases in special education.

Isolation And Exclusion

Up until the mid-twentieth century, individuals with disabilities were excluded from mainstream society, often being housed in institutions that isolated them from the outside world and their families. Individuals with disabilities were considered abnormal and unable to function in society. It was said that such individuals disrupted and negatively influenced those in the mainstream, which caused many families to stow away their family member with a disability in attics or remote places. Individuals with disabilities were treated as second-class citizens, and often states took custody, which disempowered families from having rights with regard to their child with a disability.

Because individuals with disabilities were viewed as a burden to society and uneducable, the conditions of institutions were often inhumane, with solitary confinement being the norm. It was not until the early 1900s that schools began to open their doors to individuals with disabilities as a result of parent advocacy groups. However, institutionalization and isolationism continued to prevail until the early 1970s. In fact, the last institutions were dismantled during the Reagan administration in the mid-1980s during the deinstitutionalization movement.

Access And Inclusion

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had a major impact on the treatment of individuals with disabilities, and its ripple effect took hold through a series of court cases. Brown v. Board of Education forever changed the treatment of all students in education because of the change in educational law and procedure, which had a tremendous effect on school policies and procedures. The Brown case put desegregation at the forefront of equitable education and outlawed segregation based on unalterable characteristics such as race and disability because it violated equal protections and denied children equal educational opportunity.

The primary contention of the Brown case, that segregation by race was a denial of equal educational opportunity, became the gateway for the disability movement because children with disabilities were experiencing total exclusion, at best separate schooling through institutions, with the norm being no access to schooling at all. In 1972, two landmark cases, Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC) v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia, became the catalysts for the right-to-education movement in the disability community. The PARC ruling stated that individuals with mental retardation between the ages of six and twenty-one must be provided with a free public education in programs comparable to their nondisabled peers. The Mills case paved the way for the right to due process and procedural safeguards such as the right to a hearing with representation, a record, and an impartial officer; the right to appeal; the right to have access to records; and the requirement of written notice during all phases of the process. Almost simultaneously, in 1973, another important act was passed, Public Law (P.L.) 93-112, the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504, as it is often referenced, stated that any agency or activity receiving federal funding could not discriminate against or deny benefits to individuals with disabilities.

In spite of these landmark decisions and the additional forty-six cases filed in twenty-eight states following these decisions, school districts continued to plead that they did not have the financial, programmatic, and staffing resources to provide adequate equal educational opportunity. As a result, the federal government increased its role in special education through the Education of All Handicapped Children Action (EAHCA) or P.L. 94-142, which was passed into law in 1975. The primary purpose of this bill was to provide not only an educational bill of rights but also financial incentives to assist schools in providing equal educational opportunity. This bill marked the beginning of an era of disability rights and inclusion. In the next twenty years, public education went through major growing pains to accommodate individuals with disabilities and shift its perspective toward the inclusion of all individuals with disabilities, ranging from those who are medically fragile with multiple disabilities to those with mild learning disabilities.

Simultaneously, society at large went through major shifts in perspective as individuals with disabilities became more visible in the educational system and participated in everyday activities within their neighborhood communities. As a result of educational opportunity, individuals with disabilities were not only attending public schools and general education classes, but also graduating from high school and going on to college. This was a big shift in consciousness from the early part of the century when isolationism and exclusion were not only the norm but encouraged. Many disability advocacy groups gained popularity during this era, even though their roots began well before 1975.

Without the dedication and mobilization of parents and families, many believe that the disability rights movement would not have succeeded. Parents and families banded together and affiliated themselves with national organizations to push local school districts and key personnel as well as lobby state and national politicians. Many of these groups (e.g., Association for Retarded Citizens, The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, Council for Exceptional Children) continue to be the largest and most influential lobbying forces today.

In the 1980s, there was much resistance to inclusion of individuals with varying disabilities, in part because teachers had not been trained or educated in how to provide inclusive education and resources were limited for implementing appropriate inclusion programming. Because parent advocacy groups had already begun to organize in the 1970s, these groups continued to apply pressure on the local school districts and practiced their right to due process. In 1986, the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act was passed, which afforded courts the authority to award attorney’s fees to parents or guardians who were in litigation.

In addition, during the Reagan administration, early childhood intervention became of interest as reports demonstrated the long-term success of early intervention programs from the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, the Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities Act (ITDA) was passed in 1986, which is now a subchapter under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Through ITDA, parents and families receive comprehensive services for their child from the onset of diagnosis through school-age, typically birth through age five. These services differ from what is provided in the public education system because they are developmental in nature. Thus, a heavy emphasis is placed on working with families to promote the development of the physical, cognitive, communicative, social/emotional, and adaptive abilities of the child.

At the end of the 1980s, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which afforded antidiscrimination protection, was introduced in Congress. This was a momentous time for the disability community as many came together to educate and advocate for the civil rights of individuals with disabilities. Each day, the disability community shared stories, both with politicians and the American people, of discrimination that excluded and segregated individuals with disabilities from being full participants in society. As a result of this consciousness raising, people-first language became popularized. The use of people-first language was a concrete way of demonstrating the ideology that individuals with disabilities should be viewed as people first, with their disability as secondary. Thus, when referring to an individual with a disability, it is proper etiquette to note the individual first and the disability second (e.g., a student who uses a wheelchair instead of the wheelchair-bound student, a student with a learning disability instead of the learning disabled student, etc.).


ADA and people-first language greatly impacted the reauthorization of IDEA in the 1990s. In the 1990 reauthorization, the word handicap was replaced with disability, people-first language was used, and a transition component for students sixteen years and older was added. Transition services provide a plan to ensure successful transition into adulthood for students leaving high school. This can include housing and services in the community, employment opportunities through job skills training, and college readiness through financial and counseling assistance.

The 1997 reauthorization had a drastic impact on how students with disabilities were treated and educated in the public education system by affording more rights and access to a free and appropriate education. Prior to this reauthorization, services for individuals with disabilities were still primarily provided through a pull-out or resource-room model in which students were provided services outside of the general education classroom, either by being pulled from their general education classroom or by attending a separate, segregated class often called a resource room. These separate services often used a different curriculum with lower standards than that provided in the general education setting.

As a result of the reauthorization of IDEA in 1997, schools were mandated to provide services in the least restrictive environment, and the model for special education services began to change whereby schools were shifting their primary mode of services from a segregated model to an inclusionary model. Through an inclusionary model, special education teachers enter the general education classroom to provide services, including consultation, collaboration, and co-teaching, and assist the general education teacher in developing modifications and accommodations of the curriculum for students with special needs.

Also in the 1997 reauthorization, the age for transition services was lowered to fourteen to ensure appropriate planning for successful transition into adulthood; the language of free and appropriate education was added to signify the ideology of education as a right; and nondiscriminatory assessment and inclusion in state assessments were added to ratchet up accountability of special education placement, services, and programs. As a result, the 1990s marked the beginning of the era of accountability and empowerment as the consciousness of the American people shifted with the use of people-first language, education as a right ideology, and the mandate for accountability.

The reauthorization of IDEA in 2004 continued to move the agenda of accountability and empowerment forward by emphasizing the implementation of a standards-based curriculum and scientifically based instruction, ensuring and defining highly qualified teachers, and mandating the use of the response to instruction model to determine appropriate interventions and referral to special education. Response to instruction examines the parameters in teaching and learning that affect how a student learns and uses data to change instructional practices so that students with disabilities can access content from the general education curriculum. This approach serves to empower students with disabilities by raising expectations and outcomes for learning and positioning educators and schools to be more accountable in doing so. There is no longer a question as to whether accessing the general education curriculum is appropriate, but rather a critical examination of how we create interventions and adaptations so that students with disabilities can access this knowledge.


  1. Patton, J. R., Polloway, E. A., & Smith, T. E. C. (2000). Educating students with mild mental retardation. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 15(2), 80–89.
  2. Polloway, E. A., Smith, J. D., Patton, J. R., & Smith, T. E. C. (1996). Historic changes in mental retardation and developmental disabilities. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 31, 3–12.
  3. Winzer, M. A. (1993). The history of special education: From isolation to integration. Washington, DC: Gallaudet Press.
  4. Yell, M. L., Rogers, D., & Rogers, E. L. (2006). The history of the law and children with disabilities. In M. Yell (Ed.), The law and special education (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

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