View Our Catalog

Join Our E-Mail List

What's New

Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

Press Home

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

Next Page

During the period of special class ascendancy, which began in about 1910, mild mental retardation was positioned in a central place. The category absorbed more classes and more teachers, and attracted more funding and legislation, than did any other group. Much of special education curriculum and methodology was designed for students in the category.

Simple statistics clearly spell out the manner in which mild mental retardation was the center of attention for years. In 1919, there were 75 classes; by 1941, there were 141 classes with an enrollment of more than 22,000 pupils (Johnson, 1962). In 1946, 13 states had legislation concerning special education opportunities for children deemed mentally retarded; by 1955, 40 states had some form of legislation pertaining to the education of this group. Between 1948 and 1966, the number of students with retardation served in the public schools increased by 400% (all but 10% of those provided services in 1963 were taught essentially in fulltime classes). By 1966, 89.5% of school districts provided programs, with the great majority in the form of self-contained classes (see Polloway, 1984). Teacher training programs directed most attention toward those who were labeled educably mentally retarded (EMR). When Blackman (1958) undertook a study of postsecondary survey courses of exceptional children, 26 schools responded to his questionnaire. In those schools, the topic of mental retardation topped the list in terms of (a) the number of courses taught at the undergraduate and graduate levels, (b) the frequency of journal use with respect to particular topic, and (c) the settings for field trips related to a topic.

From the time of the establishment of the field of mental retardation, the key problem was accurately identifying the clientele. Descriptions were never straightforward but always beset by ambiguities, particularly at the upper end of the spectrum of cognitive dysfunction. Much vacillation existed in the setting of criteria for defining children with low academic functioning as opposed to those with poor performance that was a result of general intellectual disability. The contradiction is intriguing. Attempts at understanding mental retardation were thwarted, on the one hand, by arbitrary statements and, on the other, by the fluid nature of the concept.

When the first systematic attempts to help those who were retarded were made in the mid-19th century, the label “feeble minded” replaced “fool” and “idiot.” Nineteenth-century ideas were then quickly elaborated into a series of categories of mental defect. People were variously described as idiots, morally insane, moral idiots, moral imbeciles, feeble minded, and morons. By 1912, the term mental subnormality had surfaced in the United Kingdom, soon matched by the category of mental retardation in the United States. After that, the construct and the definitions of mental retardation were periodically revised by the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR). The 1921 definition of mental retardation has been revised nine times (Scruggs & Mastroprieri, 2002).

Goddard’s “feeble mindedness” and its subcategories persisted into the late 1940s. Alternate terminology in the 20th century included terms such as backward, laggards, mentally deficient, mentally defective, and mentally retarded. Edgar Doll, who provided what became accepted as the standard definition of mental retardation in the 1940s (see Chapter 5) placed the burden of retardation on the constitutional nature of the individual. Such individuals, said Doll, showed “the inherent incapacity for managing themselves independently beyond the marginal level of subsistence” (Doll, 1941a, p. 218). In 1955, Sloan and Birch offered the severity levels of mild, moderate, severe, and profound in relation to mental retardation; this hierarchy was adopted in 1959 by the American Association on Mental Deficiency and formally accepted in 1961. The criterion of immutability of functioning was abandoned; adaptive behavior was formally added to the construct of mental retardation in 1961.

Before 1962, the IQ level determining mental retardation was variable, a potent indicator of the socially constructed nature of EMR. Generally, children who fell between one and two standard deviations below the norm (IQ 85 and below) were included in the EMR category. The definition adopted by the American Association on Mental Deficiency in 1973 limited the category to those with an IQ of 70 or less. With this change, 80% of the defined population was eliminated (Zetlin & Murtaugh, 1990).

Language, terms, and definitions are powerful tools that gird the formation of concepts and notions about persons who are exceptional (Winzer, 2007b). The problem of terminology, while most acute in the field of intellectual disabilities, was not restricted to this area, however. All the classification systems used by special educators evolved gradually, haphazardly, and inconsistently, and a single universally accepted method of describing and grouping different groups of children with certain exceptional conditions did not, and does not, exist. Almost every category in special education displayed marked changes in descriptors as more was learned about exceptionalities and as special classes expanded. Some of the terms had relatively short-lived but headline-making histories; others persisted for decades. Different terms are shown in Table 7.1.

Most of the curriculum that was developed and implemented for special classes focused on children labeled as mildly mentally retarded. As discussed in Chapter 4, curriculum was often of uncertain validity and muddled meaning. Special education was “a cottage industry” where teachers generally cobbled together programs for those who were mentally retarded (Goldstein, 1984, p. 59). Relatively little continuity existed over the 12 to 20 years of schooling guaranteed most children, although they could remain with the same teacher for 4 years (Goldstein, 1984).

The amazing growth of the field of learning disabilities and the altered IQ cutoff levels for mild retardation in 1973 brought a significant change in the population served under the EMR label. A kind of tension developed, with increasing prevalence rates of learning disabilities and interest in that field weaning consideration with respect to the altered IQ criteria.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, mild intellectual disability and learning disabilities were central foci. Studies comparing EMR samples with samples of those who were not retarded—referred to as the development-difference controversy—abounded, particularly in efforts to understand differences in attention, verbal learning, memory processes, use of mnemonics, and the like (see Ellis, 1963; Zigler & Balla, 1982). The research focus that emerged on intraindividual differences in mental retardation spilled over to learning disabilities. Similarly, much research focused on the functional similarities of learning disabilities and mental retardation (e.g., Neisworth & Greer, 1975).

Previous Page

Next Page