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American Annals of the Deaf

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From Integration to Inclusion: A History of Special Education in the 20th Century
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Research, special classes, curriculum, and disability itself, cannot be separated from the social context. For some groups—most specifically those who were deaf, those in the ever flexible category of mild mental retardation, and later, those deemed to be learning disabled—the word education extended far beyond the boundaries of classroom and school, although in quite different ways. In the area of hearing impairment, distinct and opposing views of deafness surfaced in different periods. A change in conceptual construction signaled a change in legitimate authority: the prevailing construction of deafness determined the responses of the hearing world, status or marginalization of those who were deaf, and the influence of the deaf community. Mild mental retardation, with its fluctuating definitions and changing IQ cutoff levels, was a socially constructed category that incorporated children affected as much by environmental variables as by cognitive dysfunction. When the field of learning disabilities was formed, the projected clientele were White middle-class children who were failing in school for no immediately discernable reasons.

It is not possible to discuss the range of special settings and programs that extended from steamer classes for immigrant children to Opportunity A classes for those who were gifted, nor can every disability category eventually subsumed under the special education banner be fully addressed here. The following discourse is essentially a simple version of a complex context—unavoidably a synopsis of interventions for various groups identified as requiring special education services. This chapter consciously eschews any sustained examination of the literature; the mapping of such diverse and complex territory is only partial, the historical data abbreviated, and only the most critical facets addressed. Historical circumstances and professional issues involved in the assumption of educational responsibility for children with special needs are singled out in the discussion that follows for the purpose of providing the spirit and sense of the developments. The chapter is structured around some of the different categories that were served in the first half of the 20th century.

Deaf Students Go To School

The experiences of those who were deaf is far more complex than a mere educational journey. For this group, the persistence of the interplay between residential schools, the deaf community, and education reform movements is striking throughout different eras.

Deaf students were the first to be offered intervention within the evolving practice of special education. From the outset, the traditions of the education of the deaf were set and remained directly within residential contexts. Once in institutional settings, deaf people rapidly began to identify deafness as a personal and primary trait that propelled them into an identifiable culture. As the residential institutions became cradles of deaf culture, they stimulated the formation of the American Deaf community, making the deaf population the only so-called disabled group to form into a discrete, identifiable, and politically viable cultural group.

Few areas within the total educational structure manifested so marked a shift in philosophy, models, and techniques as did the education of deaf students. Beginning in the 1860s, the notion of sign as the natural language of deaf people came under heavy attack by advocates of oral modes of instruction. After this widespread and rapid philosophical shift, not only the hearing establishment serving deaf people but also deaf people themselves developed two different points of view, two different conceptions of deafness and the roles of deaf people, and two radically different agendas.

Alexander Graham Bell, one of the most critical players, derided deafness as culture founded on community and communication. Instead, he assumed an audiological construction and viewed deafness as a handicap to be overcome. Bell similarly disparaged the consequences of methodologies founded on sign language. He sought to unmake the deaf community and eliminate deaf culture through the medium of oralism.

According to W. W. Turner (1848), the vast majority of deaf people were uneducated and unmarried until about 1840. Once they became segregated into institutions for schooling, most of them married, and the majority chose deaf partners (Tinkle, 1933). “The constant selection of the deaf in marriage,” Bell cried, “is fraught with dangers to the community” (Bell 1884b, p. 74). The best way to prevent such marriages was to teach deaf children orally so that they would be made as like their hearing counterparts as possible. Again and again, Bell repeated the call, “Let us banish the sign-language from our schools” (Bell, 1884b, p. 58).1

It is hardly surprising that many deaf people found Bell’s philosophy and pedagogy inimical to their best interests. Adult deaf people saw oralism as an implausible ideology; they rejected its faddisms and idealism. In a meeting of deaf people in 1900, the group resolved that “oralism, exclusive of any other methods for the deaf of different mental capacities, be condemned” (Ontario Institution for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, 1900, p. 9). Bell’s mission patronized deaf people; under his audiological construction, they were unable to uphold their own views and owned fewer rights. The values of those with the power established the system; those organizing it reiterated the values and translated them into practical instructional approaches. Those being served had little input. Hearing teachers reserved for themselves the seat of enlightenment, although they differed in how much potential and innate intelligence the deaf; possessed and how fixed the traits were. Deaf people were allowed “practically no voice in directing matters” (Tillinghast, 1906, p. 466). The interests and aspirations of deaf people, when accounted for at all, were weighed against the perspective of more powerful groups of educators and oral advocates and backed eventually by the power and authority of the state.


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