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The History of Inclusion in the United States

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Experimentation with new and unorthodox methods and materials must be encouraged.” Blatt also challenged assumptions that mentally retarded children tended to be more “physically limited” and unavoidably much more prone to delinquency and crime than their nondisabled peers. In raising these concerns, Blatt hoped “to reduce the rigidity of a profession that resists change; to provoke the creative and seek answers; and to instill a healthy unrest in all who work with the mentally subnormal.” His critique clearly established possibilities for seeing children with mental retardation as being less distinct, distant, or harmful, and for envisioning a special education that was less marginalized within and thus more compatible—and potentially more integrated—with the complex world of general education.19

The 1960s produced a multitude of studies and commentaries that questioned the efficacy of special classes in achieving the goals of special education. This body of research, which had occurred to a limited degree for decades, examined special classes from the perspectives of academic achievement as well as social and emotional adjustment, focusing mostly on special classes for students with mental retardation. Studies investigated whether such students learned more and/or faster in segregated settings or in regular classes, and they looked at which type of setting helped mentally disabled students develop stronger social skills, achieve greater self-confidence, or gain greater social acceptance among nondisabled peers.

The results of such investigations proved conflicting and ultimately inconclusive. Several scholars claimed that their research failed to prove the common assumption that students with mental retardation in special classes achieved greater success academically than those still enrolled in regular classes; in fact, several studies showed the opposite. Some research claimed to show that regular class placement provided a healthier environment for the social and emotional development of mentally retarded children; others claimed to demonstrate that such placement typically led to rejection of such students by their normal peers, effectively reproducing a segregated, isolated environment for such children in the regular classroom. Still others found that there were no significant differences in either academic achievement or social/emotional adjustment between the two settings. Almost all suggested further research.20

The absence of definitive answers regarding comparisons between segregated special classes and regular class placement for children with mental disabilities was not lost on prominent special educators. G. Orville Johnson, an eminent scholar who had engaged in some of the 1950s efficacy research, noted the enormous amount of time, resources, and expectations invested in running segregated special classes, but pointed out what he considered strong evidence that special classes were inferior in terms of academic achievement and not significantly better in personal and social development. Then, in a passage that was cited and reproduced repeatedly over the next twenty years, he argued:

It is indeed paradoxical that mentally handicapped children having teachers especially trained, having more money (per capita) spent on their education, and being enrolled in classes with fewer children and a program designed to provide for their unique needs, should be accomplishing the objectives of their education at the same or at a lower level than similar mentally handicapped children who have not had these advantages and have been forced to remain in the regular grades.

The skepticism about the propriety and effectiveness of segregation represented a small but ultimately potent perception in special education, one that by the end of the decade would capture the mind and question the soul of the field.21


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