Special education bears a fascinating history. Its origins stem from parents and professionals having an awareness of children who face disabilities and learning difficulties. Families, teachers, and medical professionals became concerned about physical, mental, and emotional disabilities, and societal attitudes, preventing children from succeeding in school. Examining this reality prompted many to determine the best manner to educate them. As a result, much legislation and litigation occurred to define and shape special education, which continues to change in the face of present cultural challenges.
Although concern for exceptional children has a long past, including the remarkable 1799 account of Jean Marc Gaspard Itard and his success in teaching daily life skills to Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron (Special Education, 2000), the legal origins of special education point back to 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka U.S. Supreme Court case and the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (Heward, 2006).
The Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case ignited concerned individuals to investigate how to apply the ruling to special education (Heward, 2006). Prior to that, schoolchildren with handicaps and disabilities were isolated largely from their non-disabled peers. If they were deemed to be educable, “they were excluded from certain educational programs or were given special education only in segregated settings” (Heward, 2006, p. 18). Parents and professionals banded together to challenge the attitude and practice of the separate but equal concept in special education. This gave rise to early legislation, such as the National Defense Education Act of 1958 which provided funding for training teachers of children with mental retardation, and litigation, such as the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania case of 1972 which “established the right to free public education for all children with mental retardation” (Heward, 2006, p. 30).
Cases in the late 1960s and early 1970s focused on cultural, linguistic, and economic factors, asserting that they should have no bearing on special education. Indifferent attitudes toward students with disabilities or cultural differences were prevalent in the United States, sparking concern and leading to further action. Other legislation and litigation continued to take place over the years to follow that provided funding for teacher training, created programs and bureaus for persons with disabilities, and recognized the unique needs of gifted and talented students.
Standards of special education were then established, beginning with the landmark Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 “which guarantees a free and appropriate education to all children in the U.S. Between the ages of 3 and 21” (Education of Exceptional Children, 1990, p. 28), leading to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1997, with an improvement issued in 2004, and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (Heward, 2006). Such laws required schools to implement programs geared toward meeting specific needs of exceptional children. Successes in the Civil Rights Movement emboldened many individuals affected by disabilities or cultural differences to press for change using the legal system for protection of their rights. The precedents of court cases and federal legislation encouraged families and professionals to search for ways to eliminate injustices for persons with disabilities and improve their educational opportunities.
Education of Exceptional Children. (1990). In Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia Vol. 10). Funk & Wagnalls, Inc..
Heward, W.L. (2006). Exceptional Children: An Introduction to Special Education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Special Education (1999). In Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2000. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation.