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Special Education

History of Special Education

Special Education and IDEA
Socio-Cultural Aspects
Sources used
History of Special Education

From the 18th Century to Nowadays

Plaza Cibeles at night

The history of Special Education begins with the 18th century. Before that time, persons with disabilities were not taken in consideration, and were often mistaken as being possessed by evil powers, cursed, or simply stupid (Blackhurst 13, 14). With the beginning of the 18th century, and also of the period known as the Enlightenment, ideas about education started to arise.

            The Enlightenment period influenced Special Education is many ways. To start, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) publishes his Emile, a book about the education of children. According to Rousseau, learning should happen in agreement with a child’s cognitive speed, with minimal outer stimuli from society, which is known for praising social roles, and wealth. This idea of teaching children in their own pace set the ground for many educators (Johnston).

Charles Michel L’Epeť was one of the pioneers in the 18th century in what concerns the education of the disabled. In 1760 he founded the first public school for people with disabilities in France. He was concerned with language and phonetics being taught in a different way as a tool for the education of deaf and blind students. Following L’Epeť’s path, Valentin HaŁy founded the “Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles” in 1784, which is recognized as the first school in the world for the education of blind people. HaŁy was inspired by many people: Rousseau, L’Epeť, and Madame Von Paradis, who was blind, and helped him develop the methods used in the school. Using these methods, HaŁy was able to educate a blind boy who later became a teacher in the same school (Safford 38-46). Another person who was also concerned with the education of people with special needs, Jean Marc Gaspard Itard was concerned with different methods in order to educate disabled children. He tried to educate a boy, who was found in the wild, for about five years. With no actual improvements, Itard gave up on the attempt and let the boy go back to his wild life. Still, his researches and efforts were of great influence on the works of special educators, especially in the United States.

On the 19th century special education became more palpable, with efforts from people such as Rev. Thomas Gallaudet, and Samuel Howe in taking action on the matter of special education. In Hartford, Connecticut, Rev. Thomas Gallaudet implemented the first school for the deaf in 1817. The school was called American Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, and it is nowadays the American School for the Deaf. Another person of equal importance in the history of special education is Samuel Gridley Howe. Howe was interested in the education of blind students, and in 1829 founded the first school for blind children in the United States. The school nowadays is called the Perkins School for the blind, and it is located in Massachusetts. Howe also was the founder of the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feebleminded children in 1848. Following the example of these two people, other states started opening institutions that aim to educate disabled children. In 1851 a school opened in Albany; in 1853 the Pennsylvania Training School fro Feebleminded Children opened as well; in 1857, Ohio State opened the Institution of the Feebleminded Youth; and in 1858 the first school for retarded children was open in Connecticut (Kanner 63, 64). With special education becoming more important through the years, in 1876 the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feebleminded Persons was found, and in 1878 two more special education classes opened in Cleveland.

Changes were made also in what concerns the law of implementing special education in schools. In 1890 it was the states’ responsibility to provide institutions for the special children, and in 1897 the Department of Special Education was created by the National Education Association.

The 20th century is characterized by the implementation of laws to assure that people with disabilities would have their rights to education guaranteed. In 1906, the New York University included in the courses offered by the school a training program for special education teachers. In 1908 the French researcher Alfred Binet, along with Theodore Simon, created the intelligence scale: a standardized intelligence test in order to identify mentally retarded children. Later on, the test would be applied to the American standards, and the idea of Intelligence Quotient was introduced in 1916 by Lewis Terman, renaming the test from Simon-Binet scale to Stanford-Binet scale. Continuing the wave of implementations, in 1918 all states recognized that all citizens have the right to education, and in 1922 the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) was founded by Elizabeth Farrell. This Council plays an important role in providing laws to protect those with disabilities. In 1931 the United States Office of Education established a section on the exceptional children, and in 1936 blind persons are included in the Social Security Act of 1935. Despite some efforts, the attention from special educational issues was shifted to other concerns such as the Great Depression and the Second World War. However, in the 1950s the number of changes made in the governmental area was significant (Winzer 373-375). To start, in 1950 the National Association for Retarded Children (NARC) was founded by parents of children with mental disabilities. This association ignited the idea of public law 94-142, by asking that every mentally retarded child has the right to education, and that such would occur depending on each person’s needs. In 1954, in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, it was stated by the supreme court of the United States that all children have the right to education in equal terms. Finally, in 1958, President Eisenhower signed public law 85-926, which provided grants to colleges and universities to make sure that courses would be offered to prepare teachers for special education. After this, a snowball effect ran through the sixties and seventies. 

In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed, and it provided funds for schools in order to have a proper environment for children with disabilities. In 1966 it was the turn of the Education of Handicapped Act, which was passed in order to grant funds to schools to train teachers, but also required a Bureau of Education for the Handicapped in the Office of Education.

In the early seventies two important cases started a revolution in Special Education: the case of the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children vs. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1971, and in 1972 the case of Mills vs. District of Columbia Board of Education. The first case fought for the right of children with disabilities to a free and appropriate public education, and the second served to reinforce the ideas of the previous. Both cases though required that children and their families had the right to a procedural due process when it comes to protecting the rights of those with disabilities. After these two cases, thirty six other cases followed (Ballard 2, 3).

The ideas to protect children with disabilities, and to guaranteed education for such were becoming overwhelming, and it was coming time to put all those small accounts in one effective law. In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act was passed and assured the rights of people with disabilities in respect to a non-discriminative environment in education, employment, and housing. It is though, in 1975 that the sum of all small acts towards the education of handicapped children emerged in one law: Public Law 94-142. This law guarantees that people with disabilities have the right to free and appropriate public education, in a least restrictive environment; also, it required that each individual had his or her own educational plan (IEP), and that all people with disabilities had the right to a fair due process.

In 1990 after being revised, Public Law 94-142 became known as IDEA, Individual with Disabilities Education Act, and has been revised again in 1997. Also in 1990, the American with Disabilities Act was passed guaranteeing that implementation would be made to people with disabilities in the work environment, as well as in public transportation, and telecommunications.

Rousseau's Emile (1762)

History of Special Education in the 20th century

Illustration: Play at daycare


Ballard, J., Ramirez, B. A., & Weintraub, F. J. Special Education in America: Its Legal and Governmental Foundations Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children 1982.

Blackhurst, A. E. & Berdine, W. H. An Introduction to Special Education (3rd ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins College Publishers 1993.

Johnston, I. Introduction to Rousseau's Emile October, 1999 Malaspino University-College, Nanaimo. Oct. 22 2005 <>

Kanner, L. A History of the Care and Study of the Mentally Retarded Springfield, Illinois CCThomas, 1964.

Safford, P. A History of Childhood and Disability New York Teacher's College Press, 1996.

Winzer, M. The History of Special Education: from Isolation to Integration Washington DC Gallaudet University Press, 1993.