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The History of Inclusion in the United States

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Further development of a more sophisticated, complex, and instructive understanding of disability emerged from the continuing, often heated debate over the relative impact of biological and environmental factors on the etiology and identification of disabling conditions, especially mental retardation. Linkages between disability and minority status arose from earlier beliefs about the hereditary nature of “feeblemindedness,” with doctors, educators, and the general public for the most part convinced that feeblemindedness was almost completely determined by heredity and largely confined to particular ethnic groups, impoverished classes, or “inferior” races. By the 1960s, however, considerable numbers of researchers, doctors, and educational practitioners believed that environmental factors such as living conditions, physical and intellectual resources, cultural deprivation, and child-rearing practices played powerful roles in either causing mental retardation or leading professionals to misdiagnose a child as retarded. While Tenny and Haring et al. had compared the social status and public perception of persons with disabilities with those of racial and ethnic minority groups during the 1950s, special educators and policy makers in the following two decades noted a direct connection, even considerable overlap, among those identified as disabled and minority populations.10

In a lengthy monograph published in the May 1958 issue of the American Journal of Mental Deficiency, Seymour Sarason and Thomas Gladwin documented in great detail what they saw as the clear connections between the construct of mental retardation and the sociocultural environments of children identified as such. “[Mentally retarded] individuals, of somewhat staggering numbers in our population, come largely from the lowest social classes, or from culturally distinct minority groups, or from regions with conspicuously poor educational facilities or standards,” they argued. They then drew a distinction between mental retardation, which they viewed as largely being a product of such environments, and mental deficiency, which they viewed as a more organic and unalterable cognitive dysfunction. However, in the typically limited and narrow processes of diagnosis and identification common to most public schools, that distinction was not made; consequently considerable numbers of children were identified as mentally retarded and placed in special classes when, according to some, they were not disabled but disadvantaged.11

The conflation of disability and sociocultural disadvantage resonated with special educators and others interested in the evolution of special education, especially in an era that focused on efforts to achieve equal opportunity in schools and society for minorities and other disadvantaged groups. In 1960, Burton Blatt alluded directly to Sarason and Gladwin’s work when he challenged the prevailing definition of mental retardation as “basically a physical or constitutional defect.” Blatt argued instead that many children placed in special classes for mentally retarded children were there due to “functional rather than constitutional causes,” citing what he considered the significant numbers of children—and actually described by Samuel Kirk as early as 1952—“from low cultural levels who are approximately normal at an early age [who] may later become mentally retarded because of their cultural environment or other unknown variables.” Blatt accepted the distinction between cultural-familial mental retardation and organically based mental deficiency and urged further study of “the nature-nurture issue.” The relation among minority status, poverty, and disability has remained a central topic of research and discussion since, as well as a central concern of the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation.12

Challenging Traditions of Segregation: Schools

From the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, special education continued its steady growth even while its advocates constantly expressed concern over the number of students who, it was believed, needed special education but were not receiving it. Between 1958 and 1966, the number of formally identified students receiving special education services either in schools, institutions, or other settings more than doubled, from just under 976,000 to more than 2,106,000.


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