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The History of Inclusion in the United States

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In a 1962 examination of the structure of special education in American schools, Maynard Reynolds proposed a pyramid-like framework for describing the various levels and programs then serving students with special needs. His framework suggests that even in the early 1960s there was a strong recognition that many students with special needs could be served in the regular classroom, especially if provided with consultation or supplementary teaching services. With a base labeled “most problems handled in Regular Classroom,” Reynolds’s pyramid ascended to special assistance in the regular classroom to resource room, part-time special class, full-time special class special day school, and upward to residential institutions, hospitals, or treatment centers. His scheme noted that as a child moved up the pyramid, the more severe his or her disability would likely be; it also noted that the flow upward toward more isolated settings should occur “only as far as necessary” and should move downward to more integrated settings “as soon as possible.” Reynolds provided no data on the number of students at each level, in part because he commented that there was—and should be—considerable fluidity of student movement among the stages and overlap among the stages themselves. “The strategy proposed here,” he wrote, “requires variety and range in programs for all handicapping areas, continuing assessment procedures to assure changes in placement at appropriate times, and coordinated planning and placement services covering all levels.” While acknowledging that “it is . . . inexcusable to delay or deny special services when they are needed,” Reynolds also argued that “it can be a disturbing experience for a child to be placed in a special class or any other type of special program. . . . The prevailing view is that normal home and school life should be preserved if at all possible.” Reynolds’s view thus clearly, if indirectly, challenged the then-common view that the most effective way to improve special education services to students with disabilities was to organize more segregated settings and place the students in them.17

The intensive process of growth for special education may have felt comfortable to its professionals, but parents involved in the process struggled to accept what had become to them a powerful and mysterious force. Parents of students with disabilities faced the assumed superior expertise of teachers, administrators, and medical personnel regarding their children as well as the difficult and uncertain prospects of formal schooling for children who up to that time had often been marginalized or ignored. A representative survey published during the decade showed a considerable amount of satisfaction, but it also expressed disempowerment, anxiety, and uncertainty among parents regarding the education of their children. The survey revealed that the majority of parents felt “that their child’s present school situation represents the best possible school arrangement that could be obtained” and held positive views of special education teachers. Some parents, however, held quite negative views about that placement. The survey also noted that relatively few parents had “any real understanding of the nature of difference in curriculum between the special group and a regular classroom” and that their assumptions about special education were “essentially a remodeled perception of what regular schooling was for them. . . . The interpretation of the rationale, curriculum and specialized techniques of special education has not been brought to parents in any degree of depth.”18

Concerns about Segregation in Special Education

Before startling the nation with the publication of Christmas in Purgatory, Burton Blatt published one of the first significant comprehensive critiques of special education of the 1960s. In an article entitled “Some Persistently Recurring Assumptions Concerning the Mentally Subnormal,” Blatt examined several basic assumptions then prevalent about the special education of children with mental retardation using a “fact or fiction” framework. As noted earlier, he questioned the prevailing notion of mental retardation as being a permanent “physical or constitutional defect” and offered some detailed discussion of how manifestations of apparent mental retardation in the classroom may actually have been a result of poverty or cultural deprivation associated with minority status and hence be improvable. In addition, Blatt offered a critique of special classes, asserting that the quality of education typically offered in special classes is poorer and certainly less imaginative than that in regular classes and calling for “an infusion of bold, creative thinking into the field.


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