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From Integration to Inclusion: A History of Special Education in the 20th Century

Margret A. Winzer

Excerpt from Chapter Seven
Going to Public School

As the 20th century opened, large institutional settings such as the American Asylum (American School for the Deaf) continued to thrive. Special classes and alternate programs and schools sprang up. The special segregated classes, destined to become the backbone and the chief bone of contention in special education for almost all of the next century, arrived largely unheralded. Once in place after about 1910, however, growth was dramatic and sustained. The most heavily funded programs in both the United States and Canada addressed mild mental retardation.

Intervention for children with exceptionalities assumes a certain systemic approach and a particular conceptual framework concerning origins and causes. But the systems and structures of early special education were not fixed; rather, they were constantly shifting. Moreover, research and writing on the nature, etiology, and epidemiology of disabilities in children as well as the types and breadth of intervention was extremely uneven. The literature shows many instances of key silences or omissions. History also provides much speculation and personal opinion as well as much less of the research necessary for understanding exceptional children and for theorizing about curricula and behavioral interventions. As Samuel Kirk noted in 1950, “What we know about exceptional children is a by product of research from the basic sciences. There is very little educational research pointed toward the solution of problems in the education of exceptional children” (p. 233).

Even when research findings were available, the traditions of education research were not themselves strongly aligned with effective models linking research and practice. “When it comes to its consumers,” observed a 1937 author, “Special Education research” was “a complicated and sometimes conflicted, and always challenging task” (Marinies, 1937, p. 9; original punctuation). Teachers, chiefly women, often found the findings of the mainly male cadre of researchers irrelevant to daily classroom functioning, and a glaring disconnect between research and practice began to develop (see Chapter 9).

The period from 1910 to 1960 is the most informative with respect to special classes and the students served. Examination of the early developments suggests a number of points. For one thing, the lack of an overarching theoretical framework or theoretical base made the development and growth of segregated classes a vulnerable and shaky proposition. This observation is not to dispute the fact that special classes became the unchallenged settings for students identified as having special needs. Rather, it points out that uncritical applications of constructs meant that as the labels used to identify special classes grew, they tended to reflect the ad hoc nature of the movement as well as stunted and incomplete knowledge about the clients. Teachers were often innovative and creative in their interventions, but little existed in the way of consistent and universal curriculum.

Much attention was directed toward some groups, particularly those with mild mental retardation, while others are largely ignored or subsumed within larger categories, such as children who were hard of hearing. Similarly, spurts in interest characterized the field, and the literature shows many peaks and valleys in the foci on particular groups. In the first half of the century, for example, mild mental retardation attracted considerable interest. During the 1970s, the problems of learning disabilities became increasingly engrossing. As this change occurred, the relative high attention to mental retardation shifted to relative neglect to the extent that Haywood (1979) was led to ask, “What happened to mild and moderate mental retardation?” Autism gained special favor during the 1980s; the next decade witnessed broad interest in ADHD.

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