History of Special Education: Volume 21

Cover of History of Special Education

Table of contents

(21 chapters)

Individuals with exceptionalities have been present in society for thousands of years, especially those with sensory and physical characteristics. However, the way society has reacted to individuals with exceptionalities has changed dramatically. The change has been positive, as society initially viewed such individuals as burdens, worthless, demons and buffoons, then exhibited more protective and humanitarian attitudes related to their welfare and finally to the present day in which individuals with exceptionalities are considered part of an inclusive society where all citizens have value and merit and can make meaningful contributions. This journey has not been easy for individuals with exceptionalities, their families or those who have educated them; however, it has been colourful, innovative and intriguing.

The history of special education has been influenced by changing societal and philosophical beliefs about the extent to which individuals with disabilities should be feared, segregated, categorized, and educated. Prior to the 1700s, individuals with exceptionalities were largely ignored or subjected to inhumane treatment, ridicule, isolation, and at times put to death (D'Antonio, 2004; Winzer, 1993, 1998). However, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ushered in rational philosophical beliefs about human dignity, which led to changes in the treatment and societal perceptions of individuals with exceptionalities (Winzer, 1998). These changes also were supported by efforts of pioneering special educators and advocates who began to experiment with various individually designed approaches to educating individuals with exceptionalities and to disseminate their work to others (Winzer, 1993).

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (Declaration of Independence, 1776)

Early in the 20th century, many began to voice growing concern over such issues as infant mortality, childhood diseases, and child labor (Anastasiow & Nucci, 1994). At this time, physicians, child advocates, and the general public began to speak out about social concerns regarding children, including those living in orphanages and those with mental illness or intellectual disabilities. These concerns came about at a time when psychologists studying young children began to accept that a child's intelligence was impacted by both genetic and environmental factors (Hunt, 1961). Prior to this point, experts believed a child's IQ was set at birth with little that could be done to influence it over time. Although we were beginning to better understand the importance of environmental influences on young children, at this point, most children with disabilities such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy were institutionalized rather than treated. On the other hand, children who were deaf or blind were more likely to be treated, but were typically sent away to “schools” and were segregated from their families and peers while receiving treatment and education.

In other words, LD can affect the way in which a person takes in, remembers, understands, and expresses information. Typically, a person with LD is of average intelligence, based on his/her intelligence quotient (IQ); however his/her academic performance is different from how they should be able to perform. People with LD are intelligent and have abilities to learn despite difficulties in processing information; however, they require specialized interventions in home, school, community, and workplace settings, appropriate to their individual strengths and needs, including but not limited to (a) specific skill instruction, (b) the development of compensatory strategies, (c) the development of self-advocacy skills, and (d) appropriate accommodation. Typically, a student with mild LD, who is identified and provided learning-disabilities instruction, can enhance his/her academic achievement, however, a student with undetected LD can struggle with low grades, low self-esteem, a loss of interest in higher education, and later reduced employment opportunities as an adult (Burkhardt, Obiakor, & Rotatori, 2004).

This chapter traces the history of intellectual disabilities by exploring significant historical periods and personalities who impacted the disability field and specifically the area of intellectual disability. Like other documented histories, the purpose of this chapter is to instruct and inform readers about the historical underpinnings of the labels, practices, and programs related to intellectual disability that are in effect today. While this chapter is not intended to be prescriptive in how the information presented here is to be interpreted, we are acutely aware that historical accounts are often interpreted based upon contemporary ideologies, knowledge, and practices. As such, as a historical account, this chapter is no exception. Current belief and practices about intellectual disabilities indeed influence the choices that, we as the chapter authors, made about the relative importance of the events that we select to highlight in this chapter. Nonetheless, this account reflects the events and personalities who, in our estimation, transformed and/or advanced the field of intellectual disability. We open with a brief prologue of the representations of the intellectual disability in popular culture and its potential impact on perceptions of persons with intellectual disability.

Writings about language and speech impairments (SLI) have been present for many centuries (Smith, 2004). Unfortunately, early historical accounts tended to reflect negatively upon individuals with SLI. For example, Van Riper and Erickson (1996) related that during the Roman times, an individual who stuttered was placed into a cage for entertainment purposes. According to these authors, citizens passing would throw coins into the person's cage to get him to talk. During the late 1800s, the profession of speech-language pathology began as an avocation of certain professionals, notably doctors, educators, and elocutionists (public speakers), who were interested in helping others improve their speech. American doctors studied under the auspices of European doctors who treated people with communication disorders. The two most common disorders that were treated then were dysfluency (stuttering) and speech sound errors (articulation) (Duchan, 2002). Treatment was available for the above disorders, however, the programs were not in public schools and the results of intervention were mixed (Smith, 2004).

All societies carry out sorting and classificatory actions, the way they view deviance changes over time for a variety of reasons that are sometimes unrelated to the behavior or its consequences (Moynihan, 1993). Also, some behaviors that were considered to be illnesses or crimes at one time have been redefined in ways that remove them from the medical, psychological, or legal professions' guidelines for interpreting them as deviant behaviors. Homosexuality is one example of such a reclassification (Bowker & Star, 1999).

Deafness and hearing impairments have a very interesting and ancient history. The term hearing impairments is used here to refer to any dysfunction of the hearing organ, regardless of the etiology, degree of hearing loss, and service provision implications. The history of hearing impairments can be traced back to centuries before Christ (BC). For instance, around 1000 BC a Hebrew law provided those with deafness and hearing impairments limited rights to own property and marry. Nonetheless, although this law protected people with hearing impairments from being cursed and maltreated by others, it did not grant them full participation in rituals of the temple (ASLInfo, 2010). People with hearing impairments were considered to be “subnormal” by great philosophers of that time. For instance, between 427 and 347 BC, Plato's philosophy of innate intelligence was the vogue. It claimed that all intelligence was present at birth. Therefore, all people were born with ideas and languages in their minds and required only time to demonstrate their outward sign of intelligence through speech. People with hearing impairments could not speak and were therefore considered incapable of rational thoughts and ideas. Indeed in 355 BC Aristotle was reported to have claimed that those who were born deaf would become stupid and incapable of reason. According to him, people with hearing impairments could not be educated because without the ability to hear, people could not learn. Greek which was spoken in his society was considered the perfect language and all people who did not speak Greek including people with deafness were considered Barbarians (ASLInfo, 2010).

Defined functionally, having low vision can mean the inability to read newsprint even with best correction (when wearing conventional eyeglasses or contact lenses) (Maino, 1993). Other functional definitions of low vision refer to a loss of vision that may be severe enough to hinder an individual's ability to complete daily activities such as reading, cooking, or walking outside safely, while still retaining some degree of useable vision. Low vision is decreased visual performance that prevents performance to full capacity compared with a typically sighted person of the same age and gender. It may be a consequence of reduced acuity, abnormal visual field, reduced contrast sensitivity, or other ocular dysfunction (Faye, 1984). This definition includes people who are legally blind and those who have a more significant amount of remaining vision.

Child psychiatrist Leo Kanner (pronounced “Konner;” Feinstein, 2010, p. 19) published a ground-breaking paper in 1943 that introduced the world to the present-day concept of autism (Fombonne, 2003; Goldstein & Ozonoff, 2009; Roth, 2010). Prior to Kanner, however, several physicians described the condition of autism without identifying it as such. A textbook published in 1809, titled Observations on Madness and Melancholy, contained a description of a boy whose symptoms fit the modern definition of autism (Feinstein, 2010; Vaillant, 1962). The book's author, Dr. John Haslam, wrote about a 5-year-old male who was admitted to the Bethlem Asylum in 1799 with a medical history that included a case of measles when he was 1 year old. The boy's mother claimed that at age 2 years, her son became harder to control. She also indicated that he did not begin to walk until he was 2½ years of age and did not talk until he was 4 years old. Once hospitalized, the boy cried only briefly upon separation from his mother and was “constantly in action” (Vaillant, 1962, p. 376), suggesting that he was hyperactive. Hyperactivity is a characteristic commonly found in children with ASDs (APA, 2000; Wicks-Nelson & Israel, 2009). Although this child watched other boys at play in the hospital, he never joined them and played intently with toy soldiers by himself. The boy could not learn to read and always referred to himself in the third person (Vaillant, 1962). Grammatical errors in speech can be observed among individuals with ASDs (Roth, 2010; Wicks-Nelson & Israel, 2009).

Throughout the ages, caring for an individual with a significant physical disability and/or health impairment has been extremely difficult or perhaps even impossible. Conditions for survival were often hard, requiring all able-bodied family members working from dawn until dark to scratch out even a minimal standard of living. Consequently, little time and resources were available for the care of a loved one with a disability. Safford and Safford's sobering volume (1996) emphasizes that children have always been vulnerable to neglect and children with disabilities were particularly subject to abuse. To illustrate this, children with disabilities were particularly subject to infanticide, abandonment, slavery, sterilization or placed in orphanages, where maiming sometimes occurred to increase the individuals' potential for street corner begging.

Societal interest in individuals with high aptitudes, gifts, talents, and extraordinary abilities dates back thousands of years, perhaps as early as 3000 BC. For example, “as early as Biblical times, prophets and learned men were extolled for their wisdom and leadership. Plato likewise accorded positions of supremacy to certain individuals based on their superior endowment of intelligence. Even in the Dark and Middle Ages, generally considered inhibitory of talent and innovation, some members of society were ennobled for their intellectual and religious acumen” (Kaufmann, Castellanos, & Rotatori, 1986, p. 232). Some societies identified children with promise and potential and provided them with special education (Freeman, 1979). This was the case with the Emperor Charlemagne who in 800 AD requested that the state provide and pay for such education for children from the common masses (Schwenn, 1985).

While traumatic brain injury (TBI) became a special education category within the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, societies have dealt with TBI far back in history. According to Granacher (2007), there have been writings about the examination of skulls from battlefields in which a hole was drilled into the skull using a trepanning tool apparently to provide some physical relief for the injured soldier. Interestingly, Levin, Benton, and Grossman (1982) stated that this tool continued to be part of Medieval and Renaissance surgeons' practice. At that time, the surgeons believed that trepanation was a vital procedure to improve the brain pulsations and hence the overall well-being of the person with a TBI; however, the medical effectiveness of this procedure did not materialize and it was replaced by brain surgery in the 20th century (Levin et al., 1982).

Over the course of several decades, the field of bilingual special education has found much support in the reform movement that has become known as multicultural education. Born out of the 1960s civil rights movement (Mclaren & Muñoz, 2000), multicultural education “is a field in education that is dedicated to equal opportunity for all students. Even groups who appear to be monocultural are diverse in regards to class, gender, and language” (Ooka Pang, 2005, p. 213). Multicultural education “assumes that race, ethnicity, culture, and social class are salient parts of U.S. society. It also assumes that ethnic and cultural diversity enriches the nation and increases the ways in which its citizens can perceive and solve personal and public problems” (Banks, 2002, p. 1). Thus, multicultural education supports the call for bilingual special education in teacher preparation and in schools. For special educators, in particular, understanding the link between exceptionalities and cultural diversity is fundamental to their professional role (Hallahan et al., 2009). In the context of a multilingual and multicultural country, such as the United States, bilingual special education is no doubt the best way to ensure that a subgroup of our population (i.e., bilingual exceptional children) has real opportunities to succeed. A major concern for any educator, but especially for bilingual special educators who value and seek to implement multicultural education, is to ensure that bilingual exceptional learners are not placed at a disadvantage because of their linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Here the term culture encompasses all the various aspects (subcultures) that contribute to define an individual. These are race, ethnicity, language, exceptionality, sexual orientation, gender, religion, socioeconomic background, and age.

It is common knowledge that people like to associate with those who behave, look, speak, and act like themselves. Anyone who does not fall in that norm is traditionally perceived, treated, and educated differently (James, 1958; Obiakor, 2008, 2009). Clearly, students with exceptionalities have been discriminated against, ostracized, labeled, and called demeaning names (e.g., stupid, imbecile, and little dummies). Today, it has become increasingly clear that differences are a part of life. Advocates of students with exceptionalities have pressed for ways to positively respond to their needs in quantifiable ways (Obiakor, Harris, & Beachum, in press). In the United States, it is impossible to divorce the education of these students from the Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent events that followed. To a great extent, the education of these students has been historically influenced by social developments and court decisions in the 1950s and 1960s. For example, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) case was a civil rights case that declared separate education as unequal education and unconstitutional (Obiakor, 2009). This was significant because it had the goal of ending racial segregation in schools. Logically, this opened doors of advocacy for students with exceptionalities. The ruling of this case became a catalyst that prompted parents and professionals to lobby for equitable education for their students.

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Advances in Special Education
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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