Bringing Special Education Students Into the Classroom

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For much of the 20th century, the practice of educating disabled students in regular schools and classrooms was exceedingly rare, almost unheard of. Today, it's a common occurrence--and a sign of how far students with disabilities have come.

Yet there's further to go, advocates for such students say. What is now called "special education" has made remarkable gains in the past 10 decades, but the next fight--the one for full educational equity for the disabled--will carry over into the 21st century.

"The passage of [the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975] was about getting the doors open and acknowledging that kids were supposed to be in school," says Judith E. Heumann, the U.S. Department of Education's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.

"Today, there's a whole higher level of expectations for the kids," she adds.

The groundbreaking federal law adopted nearly a quarter-century ago guaranteed a free, appropriate education for all students with disabilities. From then on, schools began to experiment with "mainstreaming" by placing disabled students in the same classrooms and facilities as their nondisabled peers. Later, mainstreaming evolved into "inclusion," which holds that students not only should be placed in regular classrooms whenever possible but also that they should be engaged there, as well, in the same curriculum and activities as their classmates.

During these years, the focus of special education increasingly has expanded beyond the more obvious physical and mental impairments to subtler--and more controversial--handicaps such as learning disabilities.

The 'Feebleminded'

Emerging Rights
Of the Disabled

The first federal law addressing special education, the Education of Mentally Retarded Children Act, passed. It authorized funding to train teachers for children who were considered mentally retarded.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act followed. It authorized federal aid to improve the education of disadvantaged children, including students with disabilities.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act bars discrimination against the disabled in any federally funded program and specifically requires appropriate education services for disabled children.

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act passed, prompting states to experiment with mainstreaming disabled students. The law, which guarantees a "free, appropriate public education" for all disabled students, is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The law has been amended several times, most recently in 1997.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, bars all forms of discrimination against the disabled.

In the 19th century, and into this century, children who were blind, deaf, paralyzed, deemed mentally defective, or otherwise impaired were often considered a family burden best kept out of sight.

Compulsory-attendance laws began to change that picture around the turn of the century. Schools were flooded with thousands of new students, and policymakers sought ways of dealing with children who seemed not to fit the mold.

In 1911, New Jersey mandated that school boards establish separate classes for "mentally retarded" children--an undefined category that included most mental, emotional, and learning disabilities--and other states soon followed.

It wasn't long before the "feebleminded" became perceived as a threat to society. In 1917, the famed psychologist and researcher Lewis M. Terman wrote: "Feeblemindedness has always existed, but only recently have we begun to recognize how serious a menace it is to the social, economic, and moral welfare of the state."

The move to segregate such students led to the growth of institutions and special schools.

Although first created in the 1800s by reformers who wanted to educate youngsters routinely shut out of regular schools, many of the institutions for the mentally disabled offered little, if any, instruction and instead served as de facto warehouses for children.

Over the course of decades, the system for educating disabled students came to be a hodgepodge, says Margaret J. McLaughlin, the associate director of the Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children at the University of Maryland. How a youngster was schooled often depended on the philosophy of the state or the local district toward students with handicaps.

Special schools for the blind, deaf, and orthopedically disabled, or "crippled," were established, and, while they offered better educational services than the institutions for mentally impaired children, they generally still weren't on a par with the schools serving mainstream students.

Turned Away

Perhaps no high-ranking education official better exemplifies the changing face of special education--or is a more fervent advocate for including students with disabilities in regular classrooms--than Heumann, who has been confined to a wheelchair since contracting polio as an infant. Her firsthand experiences began in the early 1950s when her parents tried to enroll her in kindergarten at the public elementary school in her middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood.

Because of her wheelchair, she was turned away. The district sent a teacher to her home for a few hours each week. "If you were lucky, you were getting a little home instruction," Heumann, now 51, recalls of the climate in the New York City schools at the time.

Fourth grade was the first time she saw the inside of a classroom, after her parents navigated a tough admissions screening for a special class for students with cerebral palsy. The class was in the basement of the local elementary school, completely separate from the classes for other youngsters. At the time, no student in the special class had entered high school.

Heumann, however, went on to attend a public high school and later graduated from Long Island State University with a bachelor's degree and earned a master's from the University of California, Berkeley. She also went on to found the World Institute on Disability, which she says was the first research institution devoted entirely to disability issues. She joined the Education Department as an assistant secretary in 1993.

The roots of the breakthrough law now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act can be traced to the 1950s, when the movement against racially segregated schools that culminated in Brown v. Board of Education inspired disability-rights advocates. Many of them were parents of children with handicaps.

At the same time, investigations of the grim conditions in some of the institutions for mentally retarded children came to light. In 1958, the first federal law addressing special education, the Education of Mentally Retarded Children Act, was passed, giving funding for the training of teachers for mentally retarded children. That was followed by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, which provided funding to improve the education of disadvantaged children, including the disabled.

Two court cases, The Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Mills v. Board of Education in the District of Columbia, both decided in 1972, further laid the legal groundwork for the rights of disabled students.

Federal Strategy

As Judith Heumann and others fought local school boards and states in the early 1970s, the members of some national education groups began to meet monthly to talk about how students with disabilities might be included in regular schools, says William Healey, a special education professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

PHOTO: At Zachary Taylor Elementary School in Arlington, Va., students with disabilities, such as Chris Clem, spend almost all of their days in regular classes. Chris' classmate, Britney Gill, is giving teacher Rod Baer a helping hand.
—Benjamin Tice Smith
PHOTO: Eleanor Roosevelt visits Jack Whelan, a student at the Weightman School for Crippled Children in Washington, in 1937.

Vol. 18, Issue 20, Pages 36-37

Published in Print: January 27, 1999, as Bringing Special Education Students Into the Classroom
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