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The History of Inclusion in the United States

Robert L. Osgood

Chapter Three
1960–1968: Challenging Traditions in Special Education

[T]he progress we can make . . . is in some degree a function of the ideological climate of the times. . . . The cultural climate dictates what can be done, but we can also have a hand in creating the most favorable climate. . . . [I]t is incumbent upon all of us as individuals, as human beings, to work toward the development of the kind of cultural climate . . . which will bring us closer to the acceptance of the kind of philosophy and ideals which will provide for the mentally retarded, and indeed for all who are less fortunate, the necessities to which they as human beings are entitled.

William Sloan, President, AAMD, 19631

As the United States entered the 1960s, American public schools faced challenges in several areas. Discussions regarding social and economic inequality led to intense national soul-searching, with the sweeping implications of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision affecting developments in law, politics, social policy, and certainly education. The federal government under President John F. Kennedy determined that much greater involvement on its part was necessary to stimulate action and ensure the enforcement of law, the protection of civil rights for all Americans, and the fulfillment of the promise of public schooling. Among educational professionals, questions about the rigor and direction of curriculum and instruction dominated educational discourse after the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957, leading to reform efforts in the teaching of most subject areas, science and mathematics. As deliberations about the appropriate purposes, character, and methodology of education intensified, special education found itself linked, directly and indirectly, to changes in the teaching of content and subject matter, the organization and structuring of schools, and the classification and categorization of students.

From 1960 through 1968, special education would continue its dramatic evolution, encountering significant challenges to its assumptions, structures, and operations. It maintained its remarkable expansion in terms of its number of programs offered and students served, even while special educators constantly maintained that an unacceptably low percentage of students who needed special education services were actually receiving them. The introduction and solidification of learning disabilities as a recognized category of disability rearranged and expanded the identified population of children with disabilities; the linking of disability with poverty, cultural deprivation, and minority status substantially altered views on the etiology and diagnosis of disability, especially in the area of mental retardation, shifting the ways in which discussions of special education services and purposes were framed. The number of people with disabilities housed in residential institutions kept increasing, leading to severely overcrowded conditions and serious charges that care and treatment of the residents all too frequently was cruel and inhumane. Such developments took place in the context of rapidly expanding federal involvement as well as heated debate about the propriety of segregated schools and settings, including those for students with disabilities.

Expanding the Federal Role in Special Education

Special education’s development in the United States during the 1960s was shaped by a multitude of significant social and educational initiatives. Among the most fundamental of these was the dramatic change in the nature and extent of involvement of the federal government—generated under the leadership of President Kennedy—in developing public awareness and shaping policy toward disability, especially in the area of mental retardation. In 1958, during the previous administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Congress passed two laws directly supportive of special education: PL 85-905, which authorized loan services for captioned films for the deaf, and PL85-926, which provided federal support for training teachers for children with mental retardation. Passage of both laws benefited from the intervention professional and advocacy groups, notably the International Council for Exceptional Children (ICEC; renamed the Council for Exceptional Children in 1958). The National Defense Education Act, also passed during the 85th Congressional session, allowed greater opportunity to develop “categorical support for education of the handicapped.” The necessary precedent for more extensive involvement in special education on the part of the federal government thus had been well established by the time Kennedy took office.2

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