Special needs education or special education has long been an important part of the education system, as it addresses students’ individual differences with adapted teaching plans, materials and environments in the cases of physical disabilities, emotional or behavioral disorders or developmental disorders or delays relating to issues like brain injury or child abuse. It ensures that students who are blind, have autism or live with Down’s Syndrome can still interact and attend public school with their peers, building social skills like any other school-ager, while receiving the specialized attention they need from purpose-trained educators.
Today we have hundreds of accredited special education programs (including the option of obtaining a special needs degree online) and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of qualified and able educators who are there for special needs children during a crucial period of learning.
Victor of Aveyron, Helen Keller and Pre-World War II Conditions
It most likely goes without saying that as long as there has been education, there has been a need for special education. Yet the history of educating children with special needs has been significantly documented only as far back as the early 1800s, when a Provence-born physician (bear in mind, specific education qualifications, like PA teacher certification, were unheard of at that time) named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard became involved in the case of a child who had apparently lived much of his estimated 12 years in the wild. The boy became known as Victor of Aveyron, and Itard spent the following five years teaching him while keeping a record of his progress.
Victor was obviously developmentally delayed, as well as mute, but he demonstrated the ability to hear. Itard took the boy into his home, yet while Victor showed early signs of progress in understanding language and learning to read, he stalled beyond the most basic level, never picking up speech or seeming to understand inflection, though he did appear to know what different words meant. Itard also recorded that one day the housekeeper, Madame Guerin, was grieving over the loss of her husband while setting the table, and Victor behaved toward her in a consoling way, showing her sympathy.
Despite his lack of significant progress with Victor, because of his work, Itard is regarded as the father of “the use of behavior modification” and of special education.
Throughout the rest of the 19th century, cases of children with disabilities like mental retardation, physical handicaps and autism were also recorded, but none more famously than Helen Keller, who forged a bond with Anne Sullivan, her governess and companion, over the course of a nearly-50 year friendship. Her international celebrity brought worldwide attention to the education of the physically disabled, and Keller was a lifelong advocate.
It was in the period before World War II that schools for the “deaf, dumb and blind” opened, and they represented what was a dramatic improvement over earlier conditions, though they were by no means ideal. At this time, too, mental hospitals and reform schools provided an alternative to jail, where the mentally and physically handicapped were often incarcerated, wallowing in filth, without proper nutrition or sufficient clothing.
True Advocacy: The Period after WWII
But it was not until the booming post-war years that groups like the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the United Cerebral Palsy Association, together with impetus from the Civil Rights Movement, pressed for equal education rights for all. Through the 1960s, with approval from President Kennedy, more handicapped children were assimilated into public schools, until in 1975 the government passed two federal laws: the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
This was benchmark legislation aimed at ending the segregation of disabled children from their peers. EHA made into law the right of all children to a public education, while IDEA required either individualized or special education for children with qualifying disabilities. No longer could a public school turn away a majority of disabled children because of their handicaps; no longer would parents be forced to pay for expensive tutors or take on the burden of home schooling.
We are lucky, though we do not live in a perfect world, that the advocacy of others has made special education a priority, as well as a vocation in this country.
Linny Stauffer is a contributing writer in her final year of special education studies at the master’s level. She is currently a special needs educator in a public school system and an advocate for equal education rights.