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When one hears the words "special education," they automatically think "disability." However, that is not the case. There is an old saying "Educate the child according to his way, even in his old age he will not turn away from it" (Proverbs 22:6).
This proverb had evolved over time as the premise for educating children according to their individual needs. The goal of "special education" as we know it today is to make learning accessible, relevant, and manageable for all children. Children with special needs often require individualized programs in order to learn. They cannot keep up with mainstream children. The goals and notions of Special Education have progressed drastically over the years. From as early as the 1800's until today, educators have been successful in refining the curriculums and teaching methods to benefit the children with disabilities. In the past, those who were "different" did not receive an education and the severely disabled were often shunned or locked up or sent to the wild to be torn apart by animals. Over time, legislation and laws have reinforced for the right for each child to receive a fair and optimum education. Any child that has any form of cognitive, social, communicative, emotional, behavioral, learning, physical or sensory issues is entitled to individualized attention to enhance their learning experience.
There have always been children with special needs. However, for many years there were no schools or services available for them. Before the nineteenth century, during the Middle Ages, is was said that those individuals who were mentally unstable were not held accountable for their own actions or behaviors. Children who were disabled were sent to asylums to be protected from the "cruel world" in which they did not fit. (Fuller & Olsen, 2008). As the ideas of democracy, individual freedom and egalitarianism began to appear in America and France, peoples attitudes changed. (Hallahan, 1997). The historical roots of special education can be traced back to the early 1800's. Many contemporary education methods for children with special needs were used back then. (Hallahan, 1997).
With the turn of the nineteenth century, things began to change. In the early 1800's, Jean Marc Itard( 1775-1838), an Italian physician and researcher for the deaf, found that learning is possible for anyone through "hands on" experience in an environment that is properly stimulated. He is the person whom most historians trace the beginning of special education (Hallahan, 1997) Three Frenchmen were exploring in the woods and found a young boy alone, completely untamed and lacking many skills. They guessed the boy to be about eleven years old. He was taken to Paris, where he would be studied as an example of the human mind in its primal state. The physicians who examined him declared that he was not "wild" rather the boy was mentally deficient. (Plucker, 2007) No one agreed with Itard, however, he believed that the child, Victor, the name he chose for the boy, was the way he was because he had been living in the forest for years and did not have the proper care. He claimed that Victor's mental deficiency was due to the lack of human interaction. Itard believed that it can be overcome. He devoted the next five years to an individualized educational program. This was the first example of an IEP, and the beginning of modern special education. (Plucker, 2007) Itard was successful in discovering many teaching techniques that introduced many methods of instruction to special ed educators. Later, his student Edouard Sequin, brought this educational method to the US. During this time, individuals with disabilities were put into confining prisons without proper care and food. Many physicians such as Edouard Sequin, wanted to alleviate the abusive maltreatment from the people with disabilities (Ackerman, Jaeger, & Smith, 2009). In 1817, Thomas Gallaudet established the first institute for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut which is now called "The American School for the Deaf." In 1829, Samuel Gridley Howe (1801 - 1876) who graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1824, founded the "Perkins School for the Blind" in Watertown, Massachusetts in 1829. Howe was successful in teaching Laura Bridgman, which had a big influence on the future education of Helen Keller (Hallahan, 1997). A girl like Helen Keller would have never imagined there to be a place for her to learn. This was now a dream for Helen Keller. Anne Sullivan trained in Perkins School and turned Helen Kellers dark world in to light. Sullivan enabled a blind, deaf, and mute girl to communicate as best as she can with others. At the end of the nineteenth century, the government implemented juvenile courts and welfare programs for both adolescents and children. Many special classes were formed in many schools as well. However, many of the lesser disabilities were not treated during this time due to the fact that they were mostly unaware of these problems unit later on when the public school system evolved. The major focus in the 1800's was mainly on the severe disabled individuals who suffered from mental retardation, blindness, deafness, and emotional disturbances (Myhill, 2008).
From 1817 to the beginning of the Civil war, more than 40 years, many states in the US set up schools for the blind, deaf, and mentally retarded or orphans. These schools tried to follow the ways of the European schools. In 1817, in Hartford, CT, the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf was opened. In 1959 the Massachusetts School for the Idiotic and Feebleminded Youth, now called the Fernald Development Center, was set up in Boston. (Kirk, 2006). The special class for deaf children was in a public school in Boston in 1869. Approximately thirty years later, a special class for the mentally retarded was organized in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1899, a class for children with physical impairments opened followed by a class in Chicago for children who were blind. (Kirk, 2006). At the turn of the twentieth century, educators began to focus a lot more on the role of special education. In the early 1900's,
the number of special education classes drastically increased. There was more of an emphasis on mental health and child clinics. In addition, the rise in psychology began and the use of mental tests resulted in the growth for new studies and methods in every area of special education. In 1922, the Council for Exceptional Children was formed. This was the start of many institutions and organizations that would change the education for special needs people in America. In 1930 many parents gathered to form a group on a national level. In 1950, this group was later known as the National Association for Retarded Citizens. In 1963 they developed the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities. (Ackerman, Jaeger, & Smith, 2009). These new ideas of education prompted many people to advocate for special needs children. Up until the 1930's, many believed that heavy concern should not be placed on individuals who failed to keep up with the standards of a classroom. However, at this point, many were realizing the lack of their ability that it was not the childs fault. Yet, with the proper stimulation, they can succeed. (Government, 2002). In addition, the book "The Child Who Never Grew" by Pearl Buck, stole the hearts of many parents and fostered the parental support groups. The book describes the experience of raising a child with mental retardation. It provided parents encouragement that they were not alone, and that there were many others experiencing the same thing as they were. ( Fuller & Olsen, 2008). In 1954, the classical case of Brown vs. Board of Ed took place. This case had a major impact on students with disabilities. (Pardini, 2002) The courts began to reconsider the rights of minority citizens in many different ways. One of the most influential advocates for the rise in special education would be President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He demonstrated that someone wheelchair bound can still perform efficiently despite their disability. Further more, while in office, President John F. Kennedy established the Task Force on National Action to Combat Mental Retardation, the President's Commission on Mental Retardation, and the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped, which is now the office of Special Education Programs. Growing up with a mentally ill sister, he strongly influenced the development of special education, while emphasizing the importance of the right for those with disabilities to a full opportunity of education. (Fuller & Olsen, 2008). By 1975, the Education for all Handicapped Children Act, also known as Public Law, and the FAPE, free appropriate public education, were implemented. They established the basis for education reform for infants through adolescents with disabilities and enabled students with disabilities to help fund the heavy costs for services. (History of Special Education, 2003). It also provided the same rights for education for students with disabilities and those regular mainstream children. (Kiss, 2006). In 1977 the EAHCA, Education of all Children Act was actualized. It stated that the laws protecting children with disabilities the right to free education, the FAPE. This also included that students should be placed in the last restrictive environment LRE, and proper placement according to their needs. Teachers worked together with the child and often used alternate methods or allowed the child some extra time to complete the assignment. Some schools set aside resource room to help weaker children one on one. This backfired because often children who were pulled out were looked at as "different" and many "regular" teachers slacked off with their responsibilities of their special needs children. (Berger, 2005). In 1990, to solve this problem, the concept of "inclusion" was created. This was an approach in educating children with special needs in which they are included in regular classrooms with "appropriate aids and services" as required by law (Berger, 2005). This led up to the expansion of the IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990. The IDEA is responsible for over six million children receiving special services today. (History of Special Education, 2003).
The unbelievable progresses of past educators in special education were important building blocks to what special education has become today. What exists today in Special Education is from the hard work of educators and parents of the previous centuries. Today over two hundred thousand young children and 598,922 pre schoolers are receiving services through the Board of Education as of 2001. ( Fuller & Olsen, 2008). Special education services are made to focus on the individual in order to ensure that the child is maximizing their full potential. It consists of either one on one small group instruction, teaching modifications, and physical, speech or occupations therapies. Each child is provided with an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, which targets the goals and needs for each specific child. The schools must provide annual progress reports in functional and academic achievements. ( Fuller & Olsen, 2008). While trying to maintain inclusion classrooms, schools also have to make sure they are meeting the requirements for the state assessments.
To conclude, special education has gone through a tremendous amount of changes. In the 1700's and early 1800's, there was no such thing as educating an exceptional child. In addition, teachers had little training in tying to understand the world of a child with disabilities. (Johnson, Dupuis, Musial, Hall, & Gollnick, 1999).However, in the twentieth century, that began to change rapidly. Today, teachers are trained in specific areas and work with these children to better their chances in leading a successful life. There is a continuous amount of effort put in to helping those who needed extra help. In is unfortunate that the exceptional had to suffer so much for special education to become a reality. Hopefully we will continue to maintain the progress in the future.