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The History of Special Education

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When picturing a special education teacher, images of a calm and competent educator working diligently with children and young adults with special needs to help them learn skills and gain knowledge come to mind–but that wasn’t always the case. Until fairly recently, young people with disabilities were not allowed to attend public school on a consistent basis. Many were institutionalized, and derogatory and discriminatory clinical terms such as “moron,” “imbecile,” and “idiot” were actually used freely by psychologists and others to denote their intellectual abilities. Thank goodness those insensitive and prejudiced ways of working with differently-abled young students are not the norm today, and new, more effective and inclusive ways of teaching children with special needs are being taught  to future educators.

There were dedicated schools for children with disabilities, such as the 1817 Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, which opened due to the persistence of the parents of children who has special needs. Most children were excluded from public schools simply because of their intellectual or physical disability–such as a young man with cerebral palsy who was not allowed to attend school in Wisconsin in the early 20th century because the teachers and other students didn’t like having him there, as they claimed he drooled and “produced a nauseating and depressing effect” on the classroom atmosphere (Beattie vs. Board of Education 1919). It is estimated that by the 1970s, only about 50% of the 8 million children with disabilities were being educated in the American public school system.

In 1975, a revolutionary law was passed: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Originally known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142), this law guaranteed, among other things, “a free appropriate public education which emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs.” Prior to this legislation, children with disabilities and their parents had little chance at a public education–some schools had partial programs, but nothing comprehensive was offered. Now, access to education is a civil right, and children with special needs not only have a law to protect their right to attend a public school free of charge, but also have dedicated teachers who gain specialized knowledge and skills to address their specific needs. To see some of the programs that special education teachers take advantage of to learn the most up-to-date research and appropriate methods of teaching these special young people, check our our list of the Best Online Master of Special Education Degree Programs, and join this growing moving of caring educators today!



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Michael Templeton
Managing Editor

Kacey Reynolds Schedler
Contributing Editor