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Special Education History

This article gives a brief overview of special education history. Learn how children with special needs are affected by the laws and regulations that are set for their education and how it was decided to integrate those with learning disabilities into regular classrooms.

Perhaps the best-known story of special education is the story of how Annie Sullivan taught Helen Keller - blind and deaf from Scarlet Fever - to communicate, opening her world. This 1880s example of adapting instruction to meet special needs might be the earliest that most people can name. Read on for more about the history of special education.

Special Education History Beginnings

In both England and the United States, the first group of children with special needs to have attention paid to their educational needs were the deaf and blind. In England, the Liverpool Blind School lead the way in 1791. In the United States, the first special education school was the school now called the American School for the Deaf, then the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817.

Special Education History in the 1800s

Special education history in the 1800s was shaped by individual people and agencies, such as asylums, charities, philanthropists, hospitals, schools, etc., noticing issues related to special education and formulating individual and separate responses, all tending towards isolation.

Special Education History in the 1900s

In the United States in the early twentieth century, a wide range of types of disability were lumped together, so children with mental retardation, children who were blind, deaf, and learning disabled, and children of foreign parents, were housed and kept with children who were delinquent. And all of these special populations were still kept strictly separate from children without these disabilities or condition, as isolation continued, but institutions moved more towards collaboration.

In both England and the United States, it was the compulsory education for all “normal” children movement that developed at the turn of the century that got people thinking about educating children with disabilities (or handicaps, as they were then called). It wasn’t until 1913 in England and 1918 in the United States that compulsory education for all was the law of the land. And in neither case did it become an immediate reality.

The next stage, sometimes called “Segregation,” involved students with disabilities being in the same school as all other children, but in separate classrooms. What changed this situation is, by historian Marvin Lazerson’s analysis, the work of a coalition of parents who used a civil rights movement approach to win the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (EAHCA PLs 94-142). With this law, which introduced mainstreaming (encouraging the education of children with disabilities in the regular classroom as much as possible), the stage of “Integration” unfolded.

EAHCA led to six crucial new elements in special education:

  • Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for all children
  • A system to find and assess children fairly
  • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) that has the child in the “normal” classroom as much as is appropriate
  • Due Process to ensure accountability
  • Parental Participation in the special education proces
  • Individualized Education Programs (IEP) to set down the program for each child so that everyone could have a shared understanding of the requirements to appropriately education him or her. (For more information, see the article “What Is an IEP?”)

Special Education History in the 2000s

The current law is referred to as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and was most recently updated in 2004. IDEA specifies the disabilities for which a child may receive special education, requires Individual Education Programs for each eligible student, and carries on the ideals of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). The amendments of 2004 also aligned IDEA and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2002.


Education Encyclopedia: -

History of Special Education: ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education -

Review of The History of Special Education: From Isolation to Integration by Margaret A. Winzer Source: History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Winter, 1994), pp. 489-490 -

Review of Special Education Policies: Their History, Implementation, and Finance by Jay G. Chambers ; William T. Hartman Source: The Public Historian, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Autumn, 1984), pp. 147-14 -

Review of Outside the Mainstream: A History of Special Education by J. S. Hurt
Source: The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Feb., 1989), pp. 133-134 -

U.S. Department of Education: Individual Education Program (IEP) -