History

The history of the treatment of people with disabilities is relatively new, because formal programs to serve these populations did not exist as professional fields until this century.  As a field, special education is relatively new.  However, the treatment of people with physical, health, and mental disorders has a long history.  Textbooks over the years have attempted to break down treatment into periods or eras, as if there were some evolution of treatment practices correlated with advancements in science and tolerance.  While there may be some validity to this approach, the differences across various cultures make it an improbable method in terms of historical accuracy.  Treatment of disabled persons throughout history has always been in terms of the prevailing philosophies, religious doctrines, values, beliefs and attitudes of the times.  There have been variable from one place to another, one culture to another, and have often advanced and retreated.

Conditions such as learning disabilities, the largest category in special education today, did not exist before 1969 and was not a problem in past centuries.  The need for all people to read and perform in academic subjects was simply not a requirement until recent times.  Blindness, deafness, physical disabilities, mental illness, mental retardation, and health problems have been obvious in all cultures dating back to antiquity, but there was little concern about education or accommodations.  When education was only important for a relatively few, such as priests, scribes, and royalty, education for persons with disabilities was not a consideration.  For those with disabilities, depending upon their cultures, treatment could range from acceptance to persecution and extermination.

Owing to the importance of the Greek culture in Western civilization and the fact that Alexander the Great was tutored by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, Alexander searched for talented young boys for special training.  Some societies have killed people with disabilities for reasons ranging from superstitions, religious beliefs, economics, and state policy.  For a paper on euthanasia and the disabled, see the web site by Sosbey.

In pre-recorded history there is only archeological evidence to suggest how people were treated. Beck tells us:

Neanderthals are the first creatures known to have buried their dead. Evidence indicates that 60,000 years ago a man was buried on a bed of flowers accompanied by a wreath of flowers. Other graves were surrounded by a circle of stones or goat skulls. Remains of an amputee and an arthritic man have been found, indicating that they cared for their disabled.
Mackelprang and Salsgiver tell us:
Neolithic tribes perceived people with disabilities as possessed by spirits. When the spirits were perceived as evil, escape routes were fashioned by drilling holes in the skulls of people who were thought to he possessed . . . The Spartans, with their rugged individualism, abandoned young and old people with disabilities in the countryside to die. Plato, to whom Western culture owes much of its ethical framework, viewed people with disabilities as standing in the way of a perfect world: "the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should. "  The Romans, who borrowed the concept of reciprocity from the Greeks, gave assistance to adult people with disabilities with the expectation that they would demonstrate thanks by not rioting. However, like the Greeks the Romans also abandoned disabled or deformed children to die.
Kolstoe (1976) described eras of treatment as follows:
 
Extermination The Greek city states of Sparta and Athens permitted disabled persons to be killed if they could not contribute to their basic survival.  Even birth marks were sufficient, apparently as bad omens, to warrant death.
Ridicule In some cultures the disabled were tolerated, but they were use for amusement as jesters and sometimes displayed for public view in zoos.  It should be remembered, however, that even in this century there have been similar displays in carnival side shows.
Asylum Primarily as an outgrowth of churches, some persons were permitted care in monasteries, charity houses, poor houses, and asylums, although treatment centered on spiritual redemption.
Education Beginning with the work of Itard, a French physician influenced by Rousseau, the education of Victor, the "Wild Boy of Averyon" who was presumed to be a feral child, educational programs were begun.

There eras are more or less arbitrary and there is considerable evidence of highly variable treatment in any given period.  For Western civilization, however, there has been a gradual progression dating back to the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Both in scripture and in attitude, people with disabilities were treated with suspicion and fear and an indication of God's displeasure The term "affliction" was a protestant concept in America and came to shape the development of such terms as handicapped and later disabled.  Earlier Jewish and Christian beliefs supported the notion that disabilities were punishments or demonic possessions, and later Calvinistic concepts of "pre-destination" sustained the belief that God punished people by means of birth defects and disabilities.  Disabilities were retributions for the sins of parents.

Mackelprang and Salsgiver explain that persons who were deformed, "crippled," or short in stature were forbidden to become priests, and the Old Testament forbade people who were blind or lame to enter the houses of believers.  The New Testament sustained the belief that people with mental disorders were possessed. Even today,  however, it is possible to find places where disabled children and adults are feared, ostracized, abused, or otherwise mistreated because of religious beliefs.

Changing Attitudes

While there were improvements in treatment of persons with disabilities, the major reasons for changing attitudes resulted more from direct methods of treating young children.  In many respects, adults with disabilities were often regarded as child-like, so any change in attitude about the worth of children was beneficial.

Comenius, born in Moravia, became a bishop of the Moravian Brethren but later abandoned his churchly duties to pursue his interests in education.  He lived in a time of high illiteracy and tremendous religious hatred.  He wrote at least 50 texts about pedagogy, among which was the first textbook ever written for children, but his best known, most influential work was the Diactica Magna in 1632.  Recognizing that children should not be educated at home past the age of six because most parents were illiterate, he advocated certain activities a mother should use with a child from birth to the age of six.  He argued for universal education regardless of sex, truly remarkable for his era, and promoted village schools, colleges, and universities at public expense.  He believed in pragmatic goals for education and had a specific philosophy about how learning should occur based on concrete principles and sensory input.  He also recommended a curriculum based on 20 areas of study ranging from astronomy to religion.  Careful analysis of his writings will find many of the recommended pedagogical practices that have become popular several centuries hence.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).  Rousseau stimulated the development of modern educational theory and technique because of his writings that condemned the poor treatment of children, although he had sent his own children to a foundling asylum and had failed as a tutor in a short engagement with a wealth family (Durant, 1967, p. 178).  But his writings in the Rights of Man, the Rights of Children, Emile, and The New Heloise served as the foundation for democratic thinking as well as a turn away from harsh theories of child rearing practices.

From today's perspective it is difficult to understand the miserable treatment that many children suffered at the hands of their families and teachers.  Childhood did not exist for many children because they were put to work as soon as they could perform capably in a any useful chore or job.  In Europe and later in America, parents on farms reared large families, required their children to work, and adopted a variety of methods to keep them on the farm after adulthood.  Throughout the middle ages and down to the early days of the American republic, children were severely punished.  While we worry about divorce today and its impact on children, in the past many children did not survive until the 4th or 5th year of life, and often their parents were killed by one disease or another leaving children orphaned or in poverty with one parent.  It was also common for children at a young age to be "hired out" by their families to work for others.  In essence, they were more or less sold to someone else for common labor.

Rousseau advocated a child-centered school based on the developmental needs and interests of children.  For example, in Emile he openly questioned the assumption that education should be based on what an adult should know and recommended instead that it be based on the child's capabilities and interests.  He said:

What is to be thought, therefore, of that cruel education which sacrifices the present to an uncertain future, that burdens a child with all sorts of restrictions and begins by making him miserable, in order to prepare him for some far-off happiness which he may never enjoy?. . . What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?  Love childhood, indulge its sports, its pleasures, its delightful instincts. . . Why rob these innocents of the joys which pass so quickly, of that precious gift which they cannot abuse?  Why fill with bitterness the fleeting days of childhood, days which will no more return for them than for you?
To Rousseau, humans are basically decent but become corrupted by societal institutions.  He, therefore, advocated an education that would grant freedom to the child, freedom from the need for obedience.  He contended that much of the mischief of childhood is created by adults.  The child was to learn through experience and to have no reading or verbal instruction.  Teaching about morality, which was the outcome of education, was to be put off until adolescence.  The child was to learn from his environment and from his mistakes, experience providing punishment and direction rather than a teacher.  He advocated sensory training, as recommended later by Montessori, by exposure to nature rather than equipment, unlike Montessori.  The many writings of Rousseau presented a formidable body of work which influenced many aspects of society, not only education.

The Rousseauian revolution began at the mother's breast. After publication of a book Emile, French mothers nursed their infants, even at the opera between arias.  In Emile "man" was considered to be good by nature, the child was regarded as "an angel" rather than an "imp" to be restrained, and his senses were no longer "instruments of Satan" but "doors to illuminating experiences."  Education was to be gained from objects and natural experience, not books and lectures.  Classrooms were no longer prisons but natural, pleasant places where learning would occur "through the unfolding and encouragement of inherent curiosities and powers."  The "stuffing of the memory with facts, the stifling of the mind with dogmas, were to be replaced by training in the arts of perceiving, calculating, and reasoning."  This reasoning came to impact the disabled.

The case of  the "Wild Boy of Aveyron" is illustrative. A child of 12 years of age was found in a wooded area near Paris in September, 1799.  It was presumed that the child had lived more or less alone in the forest without the company of humans and perhaps reared among animals, although this was disputed at the time.  The boy was put into the care of Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard who believed the boy had existed in a primitive state apart from human society.  This and other rare examples of  children raised in isolation or minimal human contact have shown the devastating effects of social deprivation.  Speech and language do not exist or are very limited, and ordinary behaviors including movement, attention, posture and gait of such children are strange and appear unnatural. Culture is particularly relevant in determining the meaning of events, people, and things, for without humans and the surrounding culture the child cannot access the cultural tool of language or the shared meanings in a communal group.

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827). Rousseau's revolution, which also culminated in the French revolution, affected Pestalozzi and all later educators through Dewey.  Being a contemporary of Rousseau---Rousseau lived for parts of his life in Switzerland when he was hiding from different authorities---Pestalozzi, a Swiss, was immediately impressed with the educational philosophy and incorporated it into his teaching methods in Switzerland.  The first premise of Pestalozzi's approach is to treat each child individually.  He operated a school for boys who were taught without rote and without books, an influence of Emile, and certainly a significant departure from customary educational practice that relied upon books, recitation, humiliation, and corporal punishment.

Pestalozzi also contradicted the popular educational models that had been founded to train clergy and scholars.  In How Gertrude Teaches Her Children, he explained that the purpose of instruction is to develop the whole man completely for manhood, rather than as a scholar.  The basis of the curriculum was training the hand, the head and the heart (manliness) as a foundation for manhood which required training of the body, mind and soul.  In many ways, this was reminiscent of Ancient Greece in which an educated man was one who was equally adept at debate, sports, and fine arts.  In Leonard and Gertrude, Pestalozzi provided a description of verbal instruction only as a means to support sense training.  The base of education was learning by "contact" not by rote memorization of facts.  Verbal instruction was meant to accompany experiences of the child, not to provide them.

Montessori education and many modern theories that base educational experiences on concrete objects, and supported by Piaget, stem from the emphasis of Pestalozzi on the concrete.  But perhaps more than his actual practices and theories of education for school-aged children, he wrote widely and passionately about infant education, providing mothers with advise about how to engender trust and faith in children and to nourish them until they are ready for school.  In this regard, an emphasis on idealistic education of the infant, he was to affect Froebel.

Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852).  Froebel is famous for establishing the kindergarten system in Germany which spread throughout the Western world.  He was profoundly influenced by Rousseau and Pestalozzi, and had been educated in schools influenced by these philosophies.  Judging from his writings, he was a pious and religious man who believed devoutly that the spiritual nature of children was of primary importance, and that education was to proceed as an extension of the divine nature of humanity, preparing for union with God.  He also proposed a "stage theory" of development but not one based on the modern concept; rather, he believed, as many ancients, that the child was born whole and that negative experiences could corrupt it.  Each stage of development was an unfolding of natural, innate abilities granted by nature, and the harm was in forcing children to grow up too quickly, an echo of Rousseau.  In fact, Froebel believed that problems of adults were caused by problems in childhood, a view held later by Freud and Dewey.  He emphasized language, form, number and directed play, and rejected books in school.

Dotloressa Maria Montessori (1870-1952).  Maria Montessori was a fascinating personality.  Even her critics were captivated by her style.  Undoubtedly a woman of keen intellect and imagination, she earned a doctorate in medicine in Italy, overcoming significant odds to become the first female physician in the country.  But her medical training did not seem to lend itself directly to her theories of education as much as the influence of two other physicians turned educators, Jean Marc Gaspard Itard (1774-1838) and Edouard Onesimus Sequin (1812-1880), a student of Itard.  Itard lived in France at a time when the first controversies of nature-nurture were raging.  As an experiment, Itard worked with the famous "Wild Boy of Averyron" named Victor who was supposed to have been a feral child.  Having no speech and acting like an animal, Itard began to educate the boy with an emphasis on social and sense training.  Although he did not make the boy "normal," he was successful in changing Victor into a socialized person who could function well and who could read at a concrete level.  The system of instruction developed by Itard was based on behavior control, sensory training, exposure to new ideas, speech and language, and mental functions based on symbolic associations.  Sequin fled France to the United States during the French Revolution, taking his training and experiences with him to open several schools and to start an organization that became the American Association on Mental Deficiency.

Montessori elaborated on these influences, particularly on the work of Sequin.  Working in Rome after her graduation, she spent time in hospitals where she encountered many institutionalized children.  She developed educational programming for the institutional which was so successful that she opened the House of Children (Casa di Bambini) for working class children.  Her curriculum was based on the works of Itard and Sequin, and she embellished it with three psychological principles:

(1) children are all different from each other and hence must
be treated individually;
(2) children must wish to learn; and
(3) children are so constituted that given proper conditions they prefer educating themselves to any other occupations.
John Dewey 1859-1952. Younger but a contemporary of Montessori, Dewey is perhaps the most directly influential figure in American education.  Inheriting influences from Rousseau and other predecessors in his line of descent, Dewey's famous maxim for education was:  "To learn by doing."  Dewey was criticized in the 1930s and 1940s for being a pragmatist.  Dewey was not concerned about the politics or the philosophy of pragmatism, as some of his contemporary British critics seemed to believe, but was opposed not only to the use of punishment and humiliation, but also to the strictures of faculty psychology, a philosophy popular in American education that held that the ability to reason was first dependent upon memory, which was achieved through strong impression, regular habits, and exercising the "faculties" of the mind.  Any subject matter would do, not for the purpose of learning it, but for exercising the brain like a muscle.

Dewey's pragmatism---learning by doing---was a reaction to lecture, reading, and to boring memorization.  His theory was also based on the scientific method of inquiry, which leaves explanations to the results and not to magical or religious influences.  Dewey was a philosopher, holding positions at the University of Chicago and Columbia University.  His influence was felt partly because his theories coincided with the industrialization of America, and the general social revolution when child labor laws were passed and children were required to attend school.  It must be remembered that during most of American history, from colonial days until after 1900, most children did not attend school for very long, if at all, and many of them were put to work on farms or as servants at an early age.  Many very young children would contribute to the income of their families in this way.  Schools, dating back to the colonial period, were harsh and corporal punishment and verbal abuse was common.  The first manufacturing plants, as in Europe, employed children who may work very long days with little pay.  The reforms of the period were not merely professional discussions about subtle points of view, rather they were similar to the recommendations of Rousseau which, in effect, were asking that children have a childhood.  Dewey stressed that the importance of a school that is child centered, promotes self-realization, and assists
the child in assuming an appropriate role in society.

In many ways, the challenge to education today is similar to that confronting the nation during Dewey's time because, like then, today there are many new immigrant children in American schools and a problem of how to provide a strong academic curriculum in a democracy which does not exclude large numbers of poor and disadvantaged children.  The current reform movement demands that school make all young people literate, both culturally and scientifically.

From the turn of the century until 1960, there was significant growth in American education.  As early as World War 1, most states had passed compulsory education laws and, because more families were situated in cities rather than farms, the length of the school year was steadily increased.  The background for early childhood education was created by developments in psychology and philosophy which influenced all education.  Prominent among these were the development of the field of psychology which was most notably advanced in America by William James (1842-1910) who was immensely influential.  Another influential psychologist was Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949) who had a profound impact on education because of his research, principally with animals, that defined the "laws" of effects or connectionism.  Influential also was the mental testing movement which was begun in France by Alfred Binet (1875-1911) and imported to the United States by Lewis B. Terman (1877-1956) who developed the Binet scales of intelligence. But educational philosophy and practice was most influenced by Dewey and the Progressive Education movement.

Elizabeth Peabody opened a similar program in Boston for English speaking children in 1860, and Susan Blow started the first public school kindergarten in St. Louis in 1873.  As kindergartens spread throughout the nation, they continued to use the curriculum imported from Froebel kindergartens in Germany.

Some universities began programs to study child development.  Many of the original studies of developmental milestones, such as in speech, language, motor, and cognitive skills, resulted from the research conducted in these centers, the body of work remaining influential even today.  A number of state universities and teacher training colleges throughout the nation adopted combined laboratory schools and child development centers to provide services to children, conduct research, and serve as a training ground for teachers.  Most of these university-based labs were phased out of existence by the 1970s but they are now enjoying a revival---recommended by The Holmes Group (an alliance of major research universities that offer teacher training)---know as Professional Development Schools.

One of the most influential and productive child study centers was that conducted by Arnold Gesell, a physician, and his collaborators Frances L. Ilg, also a physician, and Louise Ames, a psychologist.  Starting the Clinic of Child Development at the School of Medicine at Yale University, Gesell later opened his own clinic called the Gesell Institute of Child Development in New Haven, Connecticut.  Although he had published influential books before, such as The First Five Years of Life, release of a new book, Infant and Child in the Culture of Today, released in 1943 and co-authored with his collaborators Frances Ilg, Janet Learned, and Louise Ames, was especially influential because of the sudden emergence of child care programs to support working mothers during the war years.  The book was a comprehensive, readable volume covering development and needs of children from birth through nursery school including everything from feeding and toilet training to specific intellectual milestones.  It not only made references to normal child development, but also covered nursery school curriculum recommendations, child guidance, and responsibilities of parents and child care workers.

Although the Froebel approach was based on individualization, the program was highly teacher directed and limited to the use of a few objects, such as a cube and a cylinder, and games, songs, and a variety of activities were built on the use of these objects.  In reading Froebel, it is clear that he believed  these objects had properties beyond their apparent functionality.  For example, he believed that the cube and the cylinder were opposites, and that by engaging a activities the child would develop a naturally unfoldment of mental operations leading from concrete to more abstract activities.  By 1900, Dewey's "pragmatic" approach to education, a child-centered curriculum with real life experiences, challenged the curriculum and ideals of the Froebel kindergarten.  Dewey's pragmatic approach, known as the progressive movement in education, was much less teacher directed, the environment was altered to account for needs of the children, different kinds of furnishing were adapted for smaller children, and children were engaged in activities of mathematics, science, and other activities, but all with an aim of creating social skills.

The views of Rousseau are critical to understanding much theoretical development and programs today.  It will be recalled that Rousseau stimulated the development of modern educational theory and provided a foundation for democratic thinking.  Rousseau advocated an education that would grant freedom to the child, freedom from the need for obedience, and one that would focus on the needs of the child as an unfoldment of natural development.  Although young children are early introduced to books and a certain amount of structure in preschool and school programs, there is still a belief that the curriculum should be based on the needs of the child and that children should be free to develop a sense of self-expression, and he advocated sensory training, elements of modern programs.

Pestalozzi incorporated it into his teaching methods the  premise that it is important to treat each child individually.  He rejected humiliation and corporal punishment as methods to control children, which---although not universal---are important in American education.  Pestalozzi emphasized concrete instruction, an important concept in early childhood education today and for the disabled.  Froebel proposed a "stage theory" of development, which not based on the modern concept, laid the foundation for viewing children developmentally rather than miniature adults.  Each stage of development was an unfolding of natural, innate abilities granted by nature, and the harm was in forcing children to grow up too quickly.  He emphasized language, form, number and directed play, and rejected books in school.

Montessori also believed in a stage theory, one that regarded certain stages of development as optimal.  She emphasized training the senses in a particular order according to the stage theory, touch, vision, and hearing.  Based on sensory concepts, Montessori believed that children have stage sensitive abilities, which she described as absorbent minds, when the child could absorb sensory information maximally.  Montessori emphasized that knowledge comes from experiences with the world not through vicarious experiences.  The materials designed by her have influenced toys and developmental programs for infants and toddlers, as well as influencing the curriculum and materials of children in preschool and kindergarten programs and special education.

The most influential beliefs about human personality and intelligence have vacillated from one point of view to another since 1900 in the "nature-nurture" controversy.  Some scientists have been convinced that most of intelligence and personality are inherited, but others have been just as adamant that they are learned.  Between these two points of view, education has shifted from time to time in its approaches to teaching and learning.  Gradually, however, the trend has been to greater inclusion of children with disabilities.

Federal Support of Education

The federal government provided support for education in several limited but important ways beginning soon as the republic was founded.  In 1785 and 1787, the Northwest Ordinances encouraged and supported public education at the state and local levels by providing millions of acres of land for schools.  The next significant act was the Morrill Act of 1862 which set aside federal acres in each state for the provision of income to established agricultural and mechanical arts colleges.  Know as "land grant institutions" some of the most renowned colleges in the United States were started because of this law.  The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 provided grants for vocational education, home economics, and agricultural programs in secondary schools, and support has continued since with amendments and appropriations.  The relief acts during the depression and the war acts, described above, provided support for children in day care.  And beginning in 1958, after the Soviet Union successfully launched a satellite named "Sputnik," there was widespread concern that the United States would risk its national security unless there was support for public education in the areas of mathematics and sciences, particularly, and other critical subjects.

Passage of P.L. 89-10 , the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), "was the first truly broad-scale aid to education act to be enacted by the U.S. Congress" (Gearheart, 1980, p.14).  The primary focus of the Act was on economically disadvantaged children, as part of the "War on Poverty."  Head Start programs were started by the Office of Economic Opportunity for children between two and five years of age.  The intent was to narrow the differences between poor children and their more affluent age mates be providing training, health care, sound nutrition, and learning activities.  Head Start programs still exist and may be getting significant support as the number of working mothers continues to climb.  Head Start suffered significant criticism, but it has proven to be extremely effective and has been embraced by even conservative administrations, including Reagan and Bush.

P.L. 92-318 of 1972 included Title IX, as part of the Educational Amendments to the Civil Rights Act, which dealt specifically with discrimination against women in federally support educational programs.

The Bilingual Education Act of 1969, amended in 1974, has provided support for the training of teachers and direct instruction of children who do not speak the English language.  The growth of the minority population and immigrants assures that this will be a continual interest, although there are heated debates about the goals and methods of bilingual education.

P.L. 99-457, The Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments of 1986, extends services for handicapped from birth to five.  This is an amendment to P.L. 94-142 which provides incentives for increasing the number of pre-school children served by providing federal assistance.  The Act was implemented fully in 1991, and it was revised in 1997.

While great strides have been made on behalf of children and adults with disabilities, a United Nations study reports that:

Return to Introduction