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The History of Inclusion in the United States

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right of “every retarded child [to] opportunities for the fullest realization of his potentialities, however limited, . . . affection and understanding from those responsible for his care . . . . [and] help, stimulation, and guidance from skilled teachers, provided by his community and state as part of a broadly conceived program of free public education.” Three years later, NARC issued another statement outlining the organization’s “basic aims” and “current prime objectives.” In addition to extensive discussion of the need for high-quality institutional care and treatment, the document detailed its efforts to bring “every retarded child,” but especially those classified as “trainable,” into quality public school special education programs. The statement discussed NARC’s cooperative efforts with the ICEC and the U.S. Office of Education to provide such instruction and to ensure a ready supply of competent special education teachers. In particular, the document emphasized the organization’s determination to “help States meet their obligations [by helping to interpret] Federal laws to laymen and professionals so that the schools can utilize public funds to initiate or improve their special education programs. . . . NARC will continue to collect, evaluate and develop appropriate instructional materials to assist parents and teachers.” NARC clearly saw its mission to not only improve the general status of the mentally disabled in society but also to represent their interests to governments charged with providing an appropriate formal education.7

Further Changes in Constructs of Disability

These widespread, sweeping developments in the perception and practice of special education played out on a national stage and involved important elements of the national media as well as governmental and professional circles. Yet equally significant to the development of special education during this period were changes in the understandings and taxonomies of disability itself, changes that brought discussion and debate in narrower circles of educational research, policy, teaching, and administration. Two features of this development had important implications for discussions regarding the inclusion of children with disabilities in regular education settings during the 1960s: the advent of learning disabilities as a recognized—and popular—category of disability, and the direct linking or conflation of disability with broader social conditions of poverty, cultural deprivation, and minority status.

The path toward the identification of learning disabilities as its own distinct category of exceptionality began in earnest with the work of Alfred Strauss and Heinz Werner at Wayne County Training School in Detroit during the 1930s and 1940s. Strauss and Werner were interested in investigating the notion of “brain injury” among children. Those deficits appeared strongest in distractibility, behavior, perception, and indications of physiological damage to the brain and/or nervous system. The research of Strauss, Werner, Henry Head, Kurt Goldstein, and others, while controversial, strongly suggested that significant numbers of children exhibited cognitive dysfunction and problems in school performance that could not be explained by traditional constructs of mental deficiency.8

Over the next several decades, research into neurological dysfunction leading to mild to moderate disability, still widely referred to as “brain-injury,” caught the attention of a number of researchers and practitioners as well as parents; for example, by the 1950s, classes specifically targeted for brain-injured children had been established in Milwaukee and considered in Minnesota. By the early 1960s, the category of “brain-injured children,” or alternative terms such as “aphasoid,” or “perceptually handicapped,” had become widely recognized and accepted among professionals, parent groups, and schools; efforts to establish classes specifically designed for such children occurred across the country. Finally, in a keynote address before a conference sponsored by the Fund for Perceptually Handicapped Children in Chicago in April 1963, noted special educator Samuel Kirk of the University of Illinois described the status of the research to that point and proposed the term learning disabilities to describe the behaviors of children who were experiencing such troubles in school. The term struck a chord, and parents in attendance soon formed the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities. The term was used subsequently to indicate a syndrome associated with a wide range of mild to moderate disabling conditions and kinds of poor performance among school children. Learning disabilities would soon become a widely used descriptor for such children and find itself at the center of discussions about how easily and successfully regular classrooms can accommodate children with disabilities, especially those whose condition was considered only mildly disabling.9


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