The History of Special Education in America

Colonial America


Special education for disabled people in colonial America was non-existent. Individuals with disabilities who could overcome or adapt to their disability were treated well and sometimes achieved great prominence. Some examples are Thomas Jefferson, Washington Irving, and Cotton Mather who all had speech difficulties. Some other notable disabled people from America’s early days include the artist John Brewster who was deaf, Colonel William Prescott who was visually impaired, and Stephen Hopkins who had Cerebral Palsy. Mr. Hopkins is famous for stating “My hand trembles, my heart does not” as he signed the Declaration of Independence. The picture was quite different for disabled people who did not manage their disabilities well. They were shunned by colonial society. Disabled family members were hidden away at home. Mental disorders were often blamed on demon possession. Disabled people who did not have a family to care for them were usually homeless. Sometimes they received county assistance. In this case, they would often be forced to wear a red or blue letter “P” on their chest signifying poverty. -  Social  Education


Organization  Education  Social  From 1650 – 1960’s Alms houses sprung up in larger cities funded by counties, Quakers,and other charitable organizations as early as 1650 and continued under various names until the 1960’s. In return for food and shelter, disabled people worked in the alms houses alongside the poor, and criminals. Disabled people sometimes sought shelter in the alms houses. At other times, they were rounded up and placed in the alms houses.

1815 – 1835

Organization  Education  Americans established the first residential schools for blind people and for deaf people. Christian revival messages encouraged health reform and the Asylum movement. -


Social  During the 1840s and 1850s, Dorothea Dix was advocating reforms on behalf of people with mental disabilities in poorhouses, prisons, and asylums. Dix succeeded in gaining support from state legislators for the construction or enlargement of asylums. -


Social  Isaac H. Hunt pens his autobiographical book Astounding Disclosures! Three Years In A Mad House. “With any other motive than that of benefiting men, and most of all, for the scourging and scathing of a most iniquitous, villainous system of inhumanity, that would more than match the bloodiest, darkest days of the Inquisition or the tragedies of the Bastille, I pen, publish, and scatter these lines.”


A building on the outskirts of town.
Social  In the 1890s, state and local administration agencies began to build institutions on the outskirts of towns to house people with development disabilities. Disabled people were stigmatized and segregated from society for the most part. -


Law  Watson v. City of Cambridge Massachusetts ~ Supreme Court upheld the exclusion of a student because he was “weak minded.” - Essential Concepts and School-Based Cases in Special Education Law


Terminology  Children with what would later be termed Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are described as children with high levels of activity and impulsivity. -


Rosemary Kennedy, sister of future President John F. Kennedy is born with intellectual disabilities.


Law  Education  State ex rel. Beattie v. Board of Education of Antigo ~ Supreme court of Wisconsin upheld the exclusion of a student from public school who was of normal intelligence and who had a form of paralysis because his appearance “nauseated teachers and other students.” - Essential Concepts and School-Based Cases in Special Education Law


Social  Florida Farm Colony for the Feebleminded and Epileptic was built in Gainesville, Florida. -


Organization  The International Council for the Education of Exceptional Children is organized.


Law  Education  Board of Education of Cleveland Heights v State ex rel. Goldman ~ Ohio Appellate court reinstates a student who had been excluded from public school due to a low IQ score. “The court noted that education was so essential that it was compulsory between certain ages.” - Essential Concepts and School-Based Cases in Special Education Law


Organization  Social  “In the 40s and 50s parents organized and advocated for education and services for their children with disabilities, but the children were not routinely encouraged to advocate for themselves.” -


Organization  The Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. foundation is formed to "seek the prevention of intellectual disabilities by identifying its causes, and to improve the means by which society deals with citizens who have intellectual disabilities."


Law  Brown v. Board of Education ~ Supreme court decision in this desegregation case provided the framework lawyers would use to argue for the right to education of children with disabilities.


Law  Captioned Films Acts (P.L. 85-905) supported the production and distribution of accessible films


Law  Education  Training of Professional Personnel Act (P.L. 86-158) helped train program administrators and teachers of children with mental retardation.


Social  President John F. Kennedy forms the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation.


Law  Education  Teachers of the Deaf Act (P.L. 87-276) trained instructional personnel for children who were deaf or hard of hearing.


Social  The President’s Panel on Mental Retardation presents over one hundred recommendations on how the federal government should approach intellectual disabilities. The following year, President Kennedy would use those recommendations in a special message to Congress where he announced, "a bold new approach" to Intellectual disabilities. -


Law  Education  Public Law 88-164 Allocated funds for training professionals to work with special needs children and also research to develop best practices for educating IDD and deaf students.


Law  Education  Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA; P.L. 89-10) and the State Schools Act (P.L. 89-313) provided states with direct grant assistance to help educate children with disabilities.


Terminology  Hyperkinetic Reaction of Childhood appears in the second edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder and describes children who would later be termed ADHD.


Education  Social  “schools educated only one in five children with disabilities, and many states had laws excluding certain students from school, including children who were deaf, blind, emotionally disturbed, or mentally retarded” -


Law  Education  Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens v. Commonwealth ~ States are responsible for educating children with disabilities


Law  Education  Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia ~ Perceived lack of funds is no excuse for failing to provide educational opportunities for disabled children.


Law  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (PL 93-112). Guarantees equal access to plans and services. Will be used to provide services to children who do not meet IDEA 2004 requirements.


Law  Education  Public Law 94-142 Guarantees a free and appropriate education to children with disabilities. Zero Reject, Least Restrictive Environment, Due Process, Parental Participation.


Social  Education  The 1980s saw an increased national concern for exceptional children and their families. Increased emphasis on culturally appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. Increased research into best methods for integration.


Terminology  Hyperkinetic Reaction of Childhood was re-termed Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).


Law  Education  Public Law 99-457 expands federal assistance to exceptional people of all ages and their families. Changes the Education of the Handicapped Act to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).


Terminology  The term ADD is replaced by Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)


Law  Education  Greer v. Rome City School District Established presumed priority of inclusion under IDEA.


Law  Americans with Disabilities Act Extends rights to persons with disabilities without regard to race, color, national origin, gender, or religion through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


Law  Education  Oberti v. Board of Education of the Borough of Clementon School District ~ Establishes schools are responsible for demonstrating inclusion is not in the best interest of the child or the remaining students if inclusion is to be denied.


Terminology  Three specific subtypes of ADHD are introduced: predominantly Inattentive, predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive, and Combined.


Social  Education  “The first decade of the 21st century has witnessed a continued national commitment for access to a free appropriate public education intertwined with a renewed national concern for accountability and assessments that help improve results for each child with a disability.” -


Law  Education  No Child Left Behind Act Holds schools and educators responsible for ensuring students meet minimum levels of competency. Has unintended consequences. Sets impossible expectations in some situations.


Law  Education  Reauthorization of IDEA added additional regulation and benefits. Special education specialists must be certified. IEP standards implemented. Transition planning for children 16 or older and younger students if appropriate. Funding for quality special education support elements.


Law  Education  2006 - 2007 Multiple court decisions established precedents in what constitutes appropriate education.


Law  Education  2007 – 2009 Multiple court decisions clarified parental involvement requirements.


Law  Education  American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Added one-time large funding for early intervention services for students.


Terminology  Law  Rosa’s Law Public Law 111–256 "Mental retardation" re-termed “intellectual disability” in Federal law.


Terminology  Diagnostic criteria for ADHD are updated, a terminology change in the sub types from “types” to “presentations” is announced, and modifiers such as mild, moderate, and severe are introduced.

“The United States today is the world leader in early intervention and preschool programs for infants, toddlers, and preschool children with disabilities.”  Social