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Article 7: A review and analysis of the history of special education and disability advocacy in the United States.

Most reviews of the history of special education in the United States survey reforms from the 1960s to the 1970s, thus inferring the field is fairly young and progress is quite recent. The right to a free and appropriate education for all American children was only ensured and upheld by law in 1975 with the passage of the Education for all Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA, Public Law 94-142), now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). However, this recent era of reform is not unprecedented. The history of disability advocacy and the development of special education in the United States began a century earlier with reformers engaged in changing the plight of people with disabilities, namely, through altering societal attitudes, establishing legal rights, and ensuring training and education.

In our review of the literature and analysis of historical documents we identified three distinct eras in the history of special education in the United States: (a) Early Reform (1800-1860), (b) Stagnation and Regression (1860-1950), and (c) Contemporary Reform (1950-present). Further, several themes emerge and are evidenced in each historical era through societal attitudes, enacted legislation, and educational provisions. These themes include: (a) the treatment of people with disabilities following societal and cultural trends; (b) changing conceptions of disability as a qualitative or quantitative phenomenon; (c) shifting emphases on nature and nurture; and (d) the new not necessarily being better than the old. In this paper we introduce these themes, examine developments in special education in each era in light of these themes, and then explore parallels between the eras. The purpose of this paper is to provide a historical perspective for the most recent and often studied era of reform in special education by examining the frequently overlooked era of early reform and the period of stagnation and regression that followed. This review demonstrates the history of special education in the United States is significant, and as Mostert and Crocket (1999-2000) asserted, it is only by remembering the past that we can truly prepare for the future.


Theme 1: Treatment of People with Disabilities Following Societal and Cultural Trends

Despite varying philosophical and ideological positions, many of special education's greatest advocates and historians have drawn the same conclusion: How people with disabilities are treated is predicated on contemporary societal norms and attitudes. Wolfensberger observed, "Human management practices almost invariably follow prevailing cultural values" (1969, 53) and Csapo concluded, "Education serves the prevailing economic, political and social ideologies of a society" (1984, 212). Further, societal attitudes "concerning the care, education, and training of exceptional individuals reflect more general cultural attitudes concerning the obligations of a society to its individual citizens. The care and training of disabled individuals has followed historical trends, not created them" (Winzer 1993, 383).

Theme 2: Changing Conceptions of Disability as Qualitative or Quantitative Difference

Society has generally swung from quantitative to qualitative conceptions of disability (Teleford and Sawrey 1982). The qualitative model posits people with disabilities "are different and deviant--they learn, perceive, and think in ways that are unlike the normal" while the quantitative model views differences "as a matter of degree, not kind--exceptional people develop and function much as others do, but their progress may be slower and their achievements more restricted" (Winzer 1993, 380). Alternating qualitative and quantitative conceptions of disability are sharply visible in each historical era and influence the varying ways people with disabilities have been perceived and treated by society.

Theme 3: Shifting Emphases on Nature and Nurture

Depending on societal trends and the prevailing philosophical and "scientific" advances driving them, human development has generally been perceived as either an issue of nature or nurture. Proponents of nature believe intellect and academic development can be explained by genetics while proponents of nurture attribute effects to environment (Moore 2006; Peebles-Wilkins 2007). An emphasis on nature purports if personal characteristics are predetermined and fixed, expending time and resources on training and education is wasteful. Conversely, emphasizing nurture increases importance of the care, education, and experiences provided for people with disabilities. History reveals varying societal dispositions concerning the value of special education as a consequence of shifting emphases on nature and nurture.

Theme 4: The New Not Necessarily Being Better Than the Old

Kauffman (1999) observed the new is not necessarily better than the old and can indeed be a lot worse. While an overall trajectory toward improvement is evident in special education from the beginning of the nineteenth century through the present, it is also marred by periods where progress not only stalled but hard earned advancements in the field regressed--in some cases leaving people with disabilities in more precarious situations than before (Moores 2005). This trend, in addition to the aforementioned themes, is observable in each of the following three eras.

EARLY REFORM (1800-1860)

For thousands of years prior to the turn of the eighteenth century, people with disabilities faced unmitigated hardships including exploitation, exclusion, expulsion, and in some cases, execution (Crissey 1975; Heller 1979; Winzer 1998). Society was critical of families who had children with disabilities, causing them to hide their children with special needs from public view (Dybwad 1990). Extensions of charity--minimal as they were--often served more to salve the conscience of the benefactor than to meet the needs of the recipient (Crissey 1975). Moreover, people with disabilities were viewed as less than human and qualitatively different (Carey 2009; Trent 1994; Winzer 1998). Human intellect (the ability to reason) was argued to be the essence of humanness, and philosophers believed if one of the senses was lost, knowledge must also be lost (Brockett 1858). Believing disability was inhuman and deviant, society moved people with disabilities from the public eye to institutions and hospitals (Carey 2009; Winzer 1998). By the dawn of the nineteenth century, however, philosophical thought, medical and scientific advancement, and economic motivations prompted interest in people with disabilities. Evidenced in improved societal attitudes, the founding of multiple institutions for training and teaching, and legislation to protect people with disabilities, special education began to grow.

Theme 1: Treatment of People with Disabilities Following Societal and Cultural Trends

Widespread interest in educating people with disabilities first emerged as French Enlightenment philosophers inquired about the essence of human nature, language development, and intellect (Winzer 1998). Because sensory disabilities were more detectable than intellectual disabilities, efforts were first made with people who were deaf, including the initiation of a formal education program at the Connecticut Asylum by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787-1851) and Laurent Clerc (1785-1869), (Cerney 2007; Winzer 1993). People who were blind began to receive an education in France by Valentin Hauy (1745-1822) and in America through Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876) (Heller 1979). Favorable results with the deaf and blind translated into optimistic attitudes, and efforts were next made to improve the lives of people with intellectual disabilities (Crissey 1975; French 2006; Winzer 1998).

As philosophical thought developed, so did science and medicine (Winzer 1998). Consequently, some of the first to systematically attempt to educate people with intellectual disabilities were physicians in Europe, such as Jean Marc-Gaspard Itard (1775-1838) in France. Itard believed with appropriate training, he could train Victor, "The Wild Boy of Aveyron," to be a productive member of society. Though Itard did not make the progress he hoped with Victor, he successfully developed a systematic training program for educating students with severe intellectual disabilities which demonstrated even those with marked intellectual deficiencies could improve with proper training (Carey 2009; Itard 1962; Kanner 1960). One of Itard's students, Edouard Seguin (1812-1880), followed suit, publishing reports and authoring the first standard book for the treatment and training of children with intellectual deficiencies.

While interest in educating people with disabilities expanded, an underlying economic motivation was undoubtedly present. The Industrial Revolution prompted the almshouse movement of the early 1800s to not only provide economic housing relief, but also to transform those with disabilities from consumers into producers (Brockett 1858; French 2006; Winzer 1993). Thus, the focus in early institutions was vocational, rather than academic. Arguably, special education as a discipline emerged not as an offshoot of general education or as an expression of charitable compassion, but to quench the philosophical pursuits of the French Enlightenment, to satisfy the empirical inquiries of the contemporary medical community, and to serve the economic interests of an industrializing society.

Theme 2: Changing Conceptions of Disability as Qualitative or Quantitative Difference

It was Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) who motivated a revolution in how people with disabilities were viewed and treated in the United States (Carey 2009). Appalled by her first observations of "criminals, retarded individuals, and the mentally ill" being housed together in deplorable conditions (Viney and Zorich 1982, 212), Dix systematically visited jails and almshouses across Massachusetts. She then appealed directly to their state legislature (Gollaher 1993) in 1843 by revealing it was not the exception but rather the norm to find people with intellectual disabilities in situations of extreme neglect and abuse. Dix's (1843) message could not be ignored because she made it personal and imperative. By urging officials and legislators to consider that their own "lamp of reason" might one day be extinguished or their own kin might one day be afflicted, Dix framed disability as a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference among individuals; that although a person's physical or cognitive functioning may be restricted, they were no less worthy of dignity and deserved the same rights as others. Although Dix's speech was controversial (Boston Courier 1843; Franklin Democrat 1843), the Massachusetts legislature began revising related laws and appropriated funds for proper institutions.

Theme 3: Shifting Emphases on Nature and Nurture

By establishing disability as differences in degree, not kind, Dix was able to convey the importance of proper care, training, and education and helped develop hospitals, schools, and training facilities (Van Drenth 2005; Winzer 1993). Convinced that people with disabilities could learn if taught, advocates and educators such as Gallaudet and Howe began developing methods for training and teaching people with disabilities--many of which are still used today (i.e., repetition, sensory stimulation, scaffolding, emphasis on early intervention) (Cerney 2007; Howe 1833; Kanner 1960). Their driving conviction was that through providing the nurture that had been previously denied, people with disabilities could make progress and participate in society. As a result of this conviction, early advocates also emphasized keeping institutions small to maintain a family-like atmosphere. Thus, the outlook for people with disabilities was highly optimistic by the mid-1800s.

Theme 4: The New is Not Necessarily Better than the Old

However, institutions were not entirely an outlook of continued progress. Matching 1800s population trends in the US, institutional populations increased rapidly. As institutional costs increased, resident labor began to be used to offset expenses, reinforcing the factory model (Crissey 1975). Assuming economy and improvement went hand in hand, additional ways to decrease expenditures were explored including "authorizing cheap buildings with little or no provision for the family environment, exercise, and treatment of patients" (Achenbach 1975, 7). With an elevated focus on skill and trade preparation, intellectual education was downplayed or eliminated. Neglecting the original emphasis on training, education, and preparation to return to society, institutions reverted to life-long custodial residences (Winzer 2009). Reform ideology had given way to practical necessity; despite good intentions, the institution soon began to reflect the previous century's models of the almshouse or prison.


Philosophical thought, empirical inquiry, and economic pressures in the latter part of the 1800s caused society to seek ways to explain, control, and eliminate disability and deviance. Charles Darwin's conclusions about the animal world in On the Origin of Species (1859) were broadly applied to human society with negative repercussions both in the treatment and education of people with disabilities. Primarily, eugenics arose as a philosophy to solve social problems and economic troubles and intelligence tests were developed as an instrument to identify, measure, and segregate disability from society (Carey 2009; Van Drenth 2005; Yerkes 1923). Motivations to eliminate disability hindered the forward progression of special education through reduced funding and increased instructional methods that trended toward control. Sadly, as states passed and enforced compulsory attendance laws, those with disabilities were often segregated in separate classes or schools to prevent them from interacting with or influencing other children (LaNear and Frattura 2007; Richards 2004; Trent 1994).

Theme 1: Treatment of People with Disabilities Following Societal and Cultural Trends

Industrialization, urbanization, and immigration began to place serious economic strains on social services, motivating solutions to stem rising social problems (Winzer 1993). Eager to find scientific support for preconceived notions of disability, social theorists quickly applied Darwin's theory describing the animal world to humans, thus promoting the idea that nearly all characteristics--biological and social--were inherited. Social Darwinism's reliance on genetic determinism for explaining social and behavioral characteristics provided the foundation for Galton's (1822-1911) theory of eugenics. Eugenics had two applications: constructive eugenics promoting the purposeful reproduction of the "best stock" and restrictive eugenics to limit the "unfit" from reproducing. Pedigree charts and genealogies were purported to distinguish the "fit" from the "unfit." One of the most publicized genealogies, the Kallikak Study by Goddard (1866-1957), documented and popularized "theses that crime, pauperism, prostitution, and alcoholism are attributable to heredity, with mental retardation being the principle factor" (Winzer 1993, 290). As deviance and disability merged in the public eye, people with disabilities again began to be perceived as threats and eugenicists adopted more aggressive efforts to eliminate the spread of the "feeble-minded" (Davenport 1910). Greater emphasis was placed on restrictive genetics, including institutionalization to once again segregate people with disabilities from society (Field 1911; Osborn 1974; Trent 1994).

Theme 2: Changing Conceptions of Disability as Qualitative or Quantitative Difference

Converging philosophical, scientific, and economic influences of the late 1800s re-cultivated the perception that people with disabilities were qualitatively different, a "contaminated species," and ultimately, a threat to a progressive society. It became important to scientifically measure and validate difference: "Eugenics, the art of breeding better men, imperatively demands reliable measurement of human traits of body and mind" (Yerkes 1923, 225). Recently developed intelligence tests, though designed to measure cognitive ability, were quickly used to target inability (Crissey 1975; Trent 1994; Van Drenth 2005). Eagerness to categorize and label, while disregarding the role of social and environmental factors in development of behavior, soon resulted in test abuse and the clinical concept of intellectual disability (Winzer 1993).

Theme 3: Shifting Emphases on Nature and Nurture

Upon concluding that heredity determined all traits and characteristics, including intelligence, the pendulum swung back to viewing disability an issue of nature rather than nurture. The shift to emphasizing nature over nurture was exemplified by the editor of The Journal of Heredity stating that "the importance of nature is five or ten times greater than that of nurture in the making of a man" (1915, 238). Hence, restrictive eugenics progressed from aiming to decrease reproduction through isolation and segregation, to marriage restriction laws, and finally sterilization (Gould 2002; Winzer 1993). The argument supporting sterilization was that since "advances in medical science had kept the markedly unfit alive ... medicine should then assume a responsibility for curbing the surge of feeblemindedness" (Winzer 1993, 300).

In a Supreme Court decision, Buck vs. Bell, that upheld the constitutionality of states' sterilization laws, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. stated the world would be better if "society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind" (Buck vs. Bell 1927). This case, which enforced the involuntary sterilization of a young woman purported to be "feeble-minded," enshrined eugenic compulsory sterilization laws in a majority of states, paving the way for more than 60,000 operations in more than thirty American states and providing a precedent for 400,000 sterilizations in Nazi Germany (Lombardo 2003). It could be concluded that the German sterilization program which eventually led to policies propagating the mass murder of people with disabilities (and subsequently Jews) was initially modeled after American laws (Macer 1990).

As perceptions toward disability changed, special education lost much of its momentum: "In no circumstances were [people with disabilities] to be trained or educated, ... for if they returned to society they might have children" (Cranefield 1966, 13). This educational repression was demonstrated by a 1931 White House Conference on Child Health and Protection report estimating that of the ten million children in the United States requiring special education, only one million received aid that was often poorly provided (Paul, French, and Cranston-Gingras 2001). The growing focus in the early to mid-1900s on economizing institutions, heredity and fixed intelligence, and that people with disabilities were qualitatively different, only confirmed the perceived futility of training and teaching children with disabilities.

Theme 4: The New Not Necessarily Being Better than the Old

Throughout this era of stagnation (1860-1950), the tendency to adopt ideas not demonstrated to be effective, but simply newer, is evident in how the education and science community shifted to guiding paradigms rather than empirical discoveries (Achenbach 1975; Kuhn 1970). Even special educators, including Howe and Alexander Graham Bell (advocate of deaf education), promoted some of the changing paradigms through endorsement of hereditary determinism and thus "harden[ed] the attitudes of their contemporaries" (Winzer 1993, 287). Besides supporting eugenics, Bell also endorsed oralism to integrate students into general education and prevent people who were deaf from intermingling. However, this sign language ban ultimately limited the communication of those who were deaf, slowed their learning, and decreased the number of deaf teachers. Seldom in history "have so many intelligent and well-meaning men embarked on so vicious and brutal a program with so little scientific foundation" (Cranfield 1966, 13).

Although states enacted mandatory attendance laws for students, children with disabilities were often excluded due to eugenic philosophies (Carey 2009; Trent 1994). Indeed as compulsory attendance laws were enforced and more children with disabilities enrolled in public schools, teachers became frustrated with the growing number of students in their classrooms who did not learn as easily. Common schools were not seen as places where children with disabilities could be educated; rather, they were for "normal" children. Teachers believed those with disabilities learned differently and that they were better supported in segregated classes or schools which also protected these children from being teased or shunned. While education centered on manual training and preparation for institutional life, overselling of best-case scenarios also contributed to shifting paradigms by resulting in public disillusionment (Trent 1994). The combined effects of institutions first resorting to factory and then custodial models--while also failing to fully live up to promised results--paved the way for society's rapid assimilation of eugenic principles in the early twentieth century (Field 1911).


Following World War II, societal perceptions of disability once again changed due to a myriad of factors, including medical advances in early identification and treatment of disabilities (Winzer 1993). Additionally, parents in the US began unifying their advocacy efforts to change public attitudes and secure governmental assistance (Carey 2009; Dybwad 1990; Trent 1994). Parent groups lobbied for services for their children through litigation and legislation, respectively. As court cases were won and laws passed in favor of those with disabilities, schools were mandated to provide education to all children (Gartner and Lipsky 1987; Yell, Rogers, and Lodge Rodgers 1998). The increase of special education services also brought about philosophical differences in regard to inclusion of students within general education classrooms, as demonstrated in the Regular Education Initiative (REI) (Fuchs and Fuchs 1994; Kavale and Forness 2000). Like the early era of reform, the era of contemporary reform was ushered in by societal and cultural trends that influenced public perceptions of people with disabilities and balanced the emphasis between nature and nurture.

Theme 1: Treatment of People with Disabilities Following Societal and Cultural Trends

Reeling from the extent to which Hitler applied eugenics and Social Darwinism in Nazi Germany, in the aftermath of WWII, Americans wanted to fully distance themselves from eugenic practices. Furthermore, public awareness and sensitivity toward people with disabilities increased as war veterans returned with physical and emotional disabilities. Concurrently, medical, scientific, and technical advances enabled more disabling conditions to be identified, treated earlier, or prevented altogether. New theories in developmental psychology such as Watson's Behaviorism (1924) and Bandura's Social Learning Theory (1977) contributed to an increased emphasis on the role of nurture and experience in human development (Macer 1990). Most significantly, however, other historically marginalized groups began to demand change and fight for equal rights.

The Kennedy family was instrumental in the fight for equal rights in the US (Dybwad 1990; Shorter 2000). Similar to most families of this era, Joe and Rose Kennedy initially felt shame and wanted to keep their daughter Rosemary (1918-2005) from public view since she had a disability. However, two years into John F. Kennedy's presidency, Rosemary's sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver published an article in the Saturday Evening Post (1962) describing the family's story. Motivated out of public service and the belief that 75 to 85% of those with disabilities were educable, Eunice Shriver lobbied her brother, President Kennedy, to provide funding for research on intellectual disabilities and teacher training. President Kennedy established the President's Panel on Mental Retardation in 1961 to study intellectual disabilities and provide recommendations for government action; formed the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in 1962 to conduct research on children's health issues, including intellectual disabilities; and passed bills providing funding for teacher training and programs for those with intellectual disabilities.

Additionally, parents formed groups in the 1950s to support one another and obtain services for their children (Carey 2009; Dybwad 1990; Trent 1994). Although most states enacted compulsory attendance laws, public schools still excluded many children with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual disabilities. These associations, including the National Association for Retarded Citizens, became powerful lobbyists through the help of individuals including Rosemary (1910-1992) and Gunnar Dybwad (1909-2001).

In the court system, Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) went beyond the Civil Rights Movement to pave the way for far-reaching changes in educating students with disabilities (Crissey 1975; Stainback 2000; Yell, Rogers, and Lodge Rogers 1998). By ruling state-sanctioned segregation based solely on a person's unalterable characteristics (e.g., race, gender, disability) was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court set a legal precedent that dual systems for education were neither fair nor equal (McLaughlin and Henderson 2000). Thus, parent advocacy groups seized the opportunity to seek litigation and state legislation that would in turn promote federal laws mandating free education for all children.

Theme 2: Changing Conceptions of Disability as Qualitative or Quantitative Difference

Parent advocacy groups found an advocate in Gunnar Dybwad, who asserted people with disabilities were treated unjustly based on presumptions that they were less than human and qualitatively different (Bilken 2000). Dybwad argued there must be "a belief in the limitless value and a certain equality of every human being regardless of his or her degree of intelligence" (1962, 3) and declared people with intellectual disabilities "are not a species set apart, but are human beings like you and I, human beings with a handicap to be sure, but entitled within the limitations of their handicap to live like other human beings" (1966, 1). Despite successfully bringing the injustices experienced by people with disabilities to the forefront of the public mind, Dybwad recognized that ideas and attitudes alone were not enough--they needed to be translated into action, and he challenged the legal systems to accomplish this aim.

Gunnar Dybwad provided expert testimony in 1972 for the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) in their class-action suit against the state of Pennsylvania (PARC vs. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania). The Court ruled in favor of PARC, striking down state laws used to exclude children with disabilities from public schools, requiring the provision of an individualized education tailored to the needs of children with intellectual disabilities. This case provided a framework for other states' legislation that required schools to educate all students regardless of having a disability (Yell, Rogers, and Lodge Rogers 1998). Parents and advocates used these state laws and litigation to advocate for federal laws (Gartner and Lipsky 1987) eventually leading to the passage of the EAHCA (1975), securing a free and appropriate education for all students with disabilities.

In the lawsuits that followed--many reaching the US Supreme Court--Dybwad successfully framed disability as an issue of civil rights, rather than a charitable, medical, or social issue (Carey 2009; Spudich and Eigner 2001). Dybwad asserted help should come as a matter of right, "not as a consequence of generosity for charity's sake" (1968). By establishing education as a right states had a duty to provide, Dybwad was able to challenge the standards of service provided for people with disabilities.

Theme 3: Shifting Emphases on Nature and Nurture

Parent groups and Dybwad's educational advocacy were deeply grounded in the belief that no matter how severe their disability, people with special needs could grow in ability (Carey 2009). Denouncing the notion that people with intellectual disabilities could not learn, advocates asserted that limited programs with narrow expectations perpetually stymie the potential maturation of children with disabilities. In order to teach effectively, Dybwad (1962) argued there must first be a belief that every human being has the ability to learn, followed by the conviction that everyone has a right to educational training in accordance with his or her needs.

While these early court cases challenged the US legal system, Burton Blatt (1927-1985) successfully galvanized public opinion and instigated significant changes in societal perceptions of disability through his eye-opening photographic essay Christmas in Purgatory (Blatt and Kaplan 1974). In his depiction of the conditions of people with intellectual disabilities in institutions in the 1960s, he stated "There is a hell on earth, and in America there is a special inferno. We were visitors there during Christmas, 1965" (Blatt and Kaplan 1974, v). When Robert Kennedy brought Blatt's publication to the New York legislature's attention, a public outcry arose (Carey 2009; Taylor 2006; Trent 1994).

Change in societal perceptions provided the necessary precursor for the normalization and deinstitutionalization movements that Wolf Wolfensberger introduced and heavily promoted in the US. The concept of normalization emphasized mainstreaming people with disabilities into society, offering "a normal life routine, normal developmental experiences, independent choices, and the right to live, work, and play in normal surroundings" (Winzer 1998, 370). A natural extension of the normalization movement was deinstitutionalization--moving people from institutions into community-based living arrangements in smaller, residential homes. Both movements contributed to greater visibility of people with disabilities, increasing public awareness and prompting greater acceptance. The public turned more towards normalizing services in order to make it possible for people with disabilities to live a socially dignified life (Carey 2009; Trent 1994). Since the advocacy of the Kennedys, Dybwad, Blatt, and Wolfensberger in this second era of reform, federal mandates, education research, and professional organizations continue to emphasize the role of effective instruction in adequately educating and nurturing students with disabilities (IDEA 2004).

Theme 4: The New Not Necessarily Being Better than the Old

Despite a significantly improved acceptance and outlook for people with disabilities, misguided ideologies and unintended consequences continue to persist. Once included in public education, students with disabilities faced another kind of segregation and isolation, "public school classes in basements, down dark hallways, and in former closets or somewhere in the back of the main school building" (Winzer 1993, 370). EAHCA (1975) established a continuum of services from total separation to mainstreaming based on what the student needed and was feasible to provide (Kavale and Forness 2000; Wolfensberger 1971; Wolfensberger 1994). Although students with disabilities were included more in general education lessons or activities, the norm of the resource room model promoted segregation. Paradoxically, when the REI proponents aimed to improve instruction through full inclusion of all students with disabilities in general education classrooms, students' individual needs were not always adequately met (Fuchs and Fuchs 1994; Kavale and Forness 2000; Murphy 1996; Zigmond, Kloo and Volonino 2009). Consequently, "as general education became better resourced, it would become more resourceful; as it became more 'expandable,' special education would become more 'expendable'" (Fuchs and Deshler 2007, 130). Additionally, while the intended consequence of the deinstitutionalization movement was greater acceptance and integration of people with disabilities, unintended consequences also developed. People with disabilities were discharged from institutions only to be abandoned in communities, ending up idle, lonely, in poverty, and vulnerable to abuse (Wolfensberger 1994). Clearly the new is not necessarily better than the old, and reform ideology giving way to practical necessity is not simply an antiquated phenomenon left to the annals of history, but a perennial issue in the treatment of people with disabilities in the US.


There are many similarities between the advocacy efforts of individuals ushering in the eras of Early Reform and Contemporary Reform. The work of the Kennedys, Blatt, Rosemary and Gunnar Dybwad, and Wolfensberger in the mid-1900s closely resembles the efforts of Dix, Howe, and Seguin in the mid-1800s. Each exposed the deplorable social and physical conditions people with disabilities faced; each framed disability as an issue of civil rights rather than philanthropy and charity; and each fought to translate positive changes in societal attitudes into legislation that protected and provided for people with disabilities.

Blatt's photographs in Christmas in Purgatory (1974) mirror images Dix (1843) painted with words. In fact, when removing proper nouns, it is difficult to differentiate some of the scenes in Dix's Memorial from those depicted in Christmas in Purgatory. Dix observed "neglected children, old and young, each and all, witness this lowest, foulest state of miserable humanity" (1843, 3); Blatt described rooms with "groups of 20 and 30 very young children lying, rocking, sleeping, sitting--alone. Each of these rooms were without toys or adult human contact" (1974, v). Dix noted "inmates" were "less regarded than the lowest brutes" (1843, 4); Blatt observed human beings "treated less humanely, with less care, and under more deplorable conditions than animals" (1974, v). After detailing the treatment of people in institutions, both Dix and Blatt challenged societal leaders to legislate change. Dix asserted "it is defective legislation which perpetuates and multiplies these abuses" (1843, 2) and charged the legislature of Massachusetts, "Gentleman, I submit to you this sacred cause. Your action upon this subject will affect the present and future condition of hundreds and of thousands" (1843, 2). Blatt wrote, "We challenge every institution--and every governor and every legislator--to justify its personnel and their practices, its size and development, and its budget" (1974, 109).

It is significant that rather than seeing improvement since the era of Early Reform, contemporary advocates found themselves fighting similar battles and injustices fought a century earlier. Just as Dix appealed to lawmakers in her time, parent groups and Gunnar Dybwad challenged the courts to establish laws and regulations for protection and equal rights of people with disabilities. Like Howe, Blatt's major contributions served to galvanize public sentiment and establish that people with disabilities are no less human than others, and deserve equal rights, dignities, and opportunities. Just as Seguin was concerned about institutions becoming too large and losing effectiveness (Trent 1994), Wolfensberger (1971) urged that if necessary at all, institutions should be small, closely resembling a natural family unit.

With expansive reform and progress in the legal, civil, and educational rights of people with disabilities, it is hard to imagine these recent advancements deteriorating to the point of again requiring a Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts or a Christmas in Purgatory. However, given that the new is not necessarily better than the old and that reform ideology invariably gives way to practical necessity, an understanding of the history of special education is essential for upholding victories that have been won for people with disabilities.


It has been said that "special education often goes astray because of a continuing failure to see events in historical context" (Kavale and Mostert 2004, ix). This discussion examines developments in special education and disability advocacy through a historical context. Timeless perceptions and societal forms of dealing with disability continue to persist across eras, and philosophical arguments, scientific advancements, and economic motivations continue to threaten the outlook for people with disabilities today. As demonstrated through this review of the history of special education, it is imperative to have an increased historical awareness of the significant yet often devastating history of this field. Mostert and Crockett suggested, "Historical awareness is one way to enhance the development of a professional culture more selective in its practices and more mature in its self-understanding" (1999-2000, 141). History demonstrates we must learn from it lest it perpetually repeat; reflection on the past is necessary for a better future.

Lucinda S. Spaulding

Liberty University

Sharon M. Pratt

Indiana University Northwest


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Author:Spaulding, Lucinda S.; Pratt, Sharon M.
Publication:American Educational History Journal
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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