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The History of Inclusion in the United States

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Lloyd Dunn’s Challenge to Special Education

Such ambivalent, even troubling research outcomes challenging the very value of segregated special classes played a significant role in the preparation of one of the most seminal documents in American special education: Lloyd Dunn’s “Special Education for the Mildly Retarded—Is Much of It Justifiable?” Published in the September 1968 issue of Exceptional Children, Dunn’s article linked the efficacy research with issues of ethics and equity in both special and general education and concluded that in far too many cases, the reliance on special classes for children identified as mentally retarded—in Dunn’s view, often mistakenly so—was not only ineffective, it was indefensible. “I have loyally supported and promoted special classes for the educable mentally retarded for most of the last 20 years, but with growing disaffection,” he confessed. “In my view, much of our past and present practices are morally and educationally wrong. . . . Let us stop being pressured into continuing and expanding a special education program that we know now to be undesirable for many of the children we are dedicated to serve.”22

Dunn presented a series of what he considered serious concerns about special education as then currently practiced. First, segregation itself troubled him deeply. Dunn cited research and court decisions that he believed clearly demonstrated segregation’s deleterious effects on the education of children. He directly compared segregation’s impact on minority children with that on children with disabilities, noting how thousands of minority children had been erroneously identified as disabled and then shoveled off to segregated, euphemistically labeled “special education” settings, which courts would likely deem as inherently racist, unequal, and unacceptable. Dunn maintained that the homogenous academic grouping found in special education and tracking programs—like those which had recently been declared discriminatory and unconstitutional by a Washington, D.C. judge—constituted academically inferior environments for essentially the same reason that race-based segregation was found unconstitutional: Separate, segregated programs are inherently unequal. Dunn cautioned that court cases could well emerge from overt segregation of minority children in special education programs—a prediction that proved accurate—and concluded that special education was to a great extent merely a transfer of disadvantaged children from one segregated setting to another.23

Consequently, Dunn flatly stated that far too many children from minority and/or underprivileged backgrounds were being misidentified as mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed on the basis of cursory identification procedures and inappropriate use of intelligence testing. Dunn argued that those children—of whom he estimated 60 to 80 percent were from “low status backgrounds”—were then placed in segregated, inherently inferior special education settings “at the expense of the socioculturally deprived slow learning pupils themselves,” raising “serious educational and civil rights issues which must be squarely faced.”24

Dunn’s critique extended to the diagnosis and identification processes in special education that he believed led to essentially useless and certainly stigmatizing labeling of students. He argued that the entire process was far too facile and was vested in the wrong hands, namely psychologists who administered some cursory intelligence testing, with “the purpose . . . to find out what is wrong with the child in order to label him and thus make him eligible for special education services. In large measure this has resulted in digging the educational graves of many racially and/or economically disadvantaged children. . . .” Dunn wrote that these labels then have highly negative effects on the attitudes and practices of teachers responsible for the education of these children as well as on the students themselves. He also maintained that the consequent segregation for special education services “probably has a serious debilitating effect upon [the disabled child’s] self image. . . . We cannot ignore the evidence that removing a handicapped child from the regular grades for special education probably contributes significantly to his feelings of inferiority and problems of acceptance.” In addition, he argued, regular classes by this time had become much more able to accommodate children with mild retardation due to

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