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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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Screening programs for visual impairment began in 1899 when Connecticut used the Snellen chart as a measure of visual acuity. Accurate screening and the relative ease with which children who were blind and visually impaired could be accommodated in the public schools contributed to the early establishment of special classes, which were designated as braille classes or, more commonly, sight saving classes. Day classes for visually impaired students opened in Cincinnati (1905), Milwaukee (1907), Boise (1909), Cleveland (1909), New York (1909), and Boston (1909). Classes grew quickly, from 260 in 1925 to 476 in 1935 (Wooden, 1936–37). After this period of initial growth, the number of public school classes and the number of children attending them reached a plateau that lasted until about 1948 (Lowenfeld, 1956). Need exceeded supply, however, and by 1940, it was estimated that one in every 500 children needed sight saving classes and that one in every 2,000 needed to learn braille (Frampton & Rowell, 1940). Until the 1960s, it was believed that visually impaired children should conserve their vision so as not to “wear it out”; the need for sight saving was primary.

By 1910, 4.5% of children who were blind were in public school programs. By 1913, students who were visually impaired were beginning to be cooperatively caught by specialists and general classroom teachers. Students spent part of the day in general classrooms and part in sight saving classes (Abraham, 1976; Kirk & Gallagher, 1979; Lowenfeld, 1956). Before 1949, however, less than 10% of all blind children in the United States attended public school classes. From 1949 on—the year when the first retrolental fibroplasia (retinopathy of prematurity)4 cases reached school age—the total number of children who were blind in the United States began to increase, and public school classes and their populations grew much faster than residential schools. By 1956, about 25% of blind children attended their local public schools (Lowenfeld, 1956).

Meyer (1934) observed that “there is no clear cut and well defined philosophy underlying the education of the blind child” (p. 44). Commonalities were found in the use of braille as a critical reading aid and in a stress on orientation and mobility. Until the 1960s, there was consensus with respect to the need for sight saving measures.

The education of children with visual impairments embarked early on its fruitful relationship with technology. In the 1930s, there appeared “certain new devices in the field of the education of the blind; such as the talking book, the printing visagraph and the dictaphone” (Bryne, 1934, p. 44). By the 1970s, some researchers felt that high-tech advances would eliminate the need for braille completely.

Despite contentious debate, braille emerged as traditional medium of literacy for those who were blind. After its acceptance in North America in the 1890s, braille was widely used. During the 1960s, the orthodoxy altered its approach from saving sight to a strong emphasis on the use of residual vision. The number of braille users declined dramatically. In 1955, more than 50% of all people with severe visual impairments used braille. In 1963, about 55% of legally blind children were using braille. By 1978, the rate dropped to 18%, and in 1989, only 12% used braille. By 1994, only 9.45% were braille users; in 1995, the number was 9.62% (De Witt, 1991; Schroeder, 1996).

Contemporary scenarios find an increased emphasis on braille. Both educators and adults who are blind recognize that it is important to have more than one literacy medium, and they acknowledge that the ability to read and write braille maximizes students’ chances of educational and vocational success and lays the foundation they need to benefit from many new technological advances (Stephens, 1989). Data also suggest that braille is not only a tool of literacy but also an identity mechanism for adults who are blind, a symbol of independence and competence, even group identity (Schroeder, 1996).

There is not another field that has benefited as much from technological advances as has that of visual impairment. More than 2,000 technical aids, accessories, and devices exist for reading, mobility and orientation, and magnification. In the classroom, a student may use adaptive computer peripherals such as a voice output system, a specialized keyboard, a screen-enlarging device, a four-track tape recorder/player, a laptop braille computer, a print enlarger machine, a talking calculator, and various types of reading aids (Winzer, 2007b).

Children With Intellectual Disabilities Go To School

A redefinition and reorientation of intellectual disability began in the 1880s on a number of fronts: use of the new term, feeble mindedness; the discovery of the construct of moral imbecile and the parallel concept of degeneracy; the admission into the institutions of people with greater disabilities; state intervention into admission policies; and the support of lifelong segregation. From that time on, psychologists, educators, and sociologists expended great energy on issues relating to intellectual disability, and the population of so-called mentally subnormal people in North America grew to prodigious proportions (Penrose, 1949/1966).

Even though special classes for children with intellectual disabilities were central in special education, the broader field of mental retardation in many ways ultimately and critically retained its affiliation with the institutional side. Segregation was a lifelong enterprise. On a poignant note, a teacher from the New Jersey Training School at Vineland in 1942 narrated how “Henry Koenig was our first pupil—a tiny boy about five years old. After all these years [54 years] Henry is still at the Training School” (Vernon, 1942, p. 22).

The custodial nature persisted right into the 1960s, although the idea of the institution as a conveyor belt back to the community was partially resurrected. A 1940 observer wrote that

[t]he population of an institution for the mentally handicapped and epileptics (not insane) may be classified as 1. Permanent custodial cases; 2. Permanent cases trainable for institutional maintenance duties; 3. Alternating parole and institutional cases of unstable physical and emotional equipment; 4. Temporary cases trainable for gainful employment, and 5. Temporary cases not trainable for public employment, but returnable to their families. (Springsteen, 1940, p. 54)

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