Special Education in the US: A History & Systems of Support


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Presented at the Fulbright Classroom Teacher Exchange, October 2009.

- Brief historical overview of societal attitudes towards disability and special education.
- 10 Basic Steps in the special education process
- Effective practices
- Resources (OSEP TA&D Network; NDC/NICHCY)

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  • The history of society’s views and understanding of people with disabilities is a long and complex one. Most of this history, including that related to the education of children with special needs, is marked by unfavorable attitudes & treatment. Here I’ll present a rather truncated version of that history, highlighting a number of major milestones along the journey to a greater societal acceptance of people with disabilities as well as an acceptance and appreciation of the many meaningful contributions they make given the opportunity. I’d like to acknowledge the Alaska Governor’s Council on Disabilities & Special Education’s Disability History Exhibit which provides the foundation for this first section - http://www.hss.state.ak.us/gcdse/history/PDF_Guide.htm
  • In 1798, the Fifth Congress passed the first federal law concerned with the care of persons with disabilities (Braddock, 1987). This law authorized a Marine Hospital Service to provide medical services to sick and disabled seamen.
  • One positive event of this era was the beginning of special education. As teachers in public schools became aware of the increasing numbers of students with learning disabilities, they called for special classes and teachers to educate them. Rhode Island opened the first public special education class in the U.S. in 1896. By 1923, almost 34,000 students were in special education classes.
  • State responsibility -- custodial care in large institutionsAs demand increased, institutions continued to grow larger and become more crowded. continued into 1970sschools were allowed to exclude--and often did exclude--certain children, especially those with disabilities. Moral Viewpoint - A popular textbook for educators by Stanley P. Davies advocates strict control and confinement of persons with disabilities to protect society.Era characterized by shame and guilt.
  • A popular textbook for educators by Stanley P. Davies advocates strict control and confinement of persons with disabilities to protect society.
  • The concept of "normalization" originated in Denmark in the late 1950s. It meant quite simply allowing persons who lived in institutions to enjoy a normal rhythm of the day. As BenjtNirje put it, "Making available to the mentally retarded patterns and conditions of everyday life which are as close as possible to the norms and patterns of the mainstream of society." Combined with the continuing stories of abuse and neglect in institutions, the normalization principle helped to convince people that individuals with disabilities belong in the community.
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