The History of Special Education (with a Focus on the United States)

Margret A. Winzer is a scholar specialised in the history of education, with a focus on special education. She has written two landmarks books on this topic: The History of Special Education: From Isolation to Integration, which begins with a discussion of understandings of disability during Antiquity, and concludes in the XXth century; and
From Integration to Inclusion: A History of Special Education in the 20th Century
, which looks more closely at the second half of the XIXth century, and until the new inclusion policies of the XXIst century. The two books overlaps in themes and periods examined, and tie together a history of labor, of ideas, of education, and of disability rights – not directly the material and design history of special education, but it can help shedding light on innovations in this area. I’ve compiled the timelines included in these books in a spreadsheet and started a visual and sortable timeline using time.graphics.

These notes are from From Integration to Inclusion. It focuses on the United States, and its attempt to follow educational initiatives for all disabilities. Chapter 1 tracks how special education and the educability of the disabled came to be in the 19th century: France, England, etc. My notes on Weygand’s history of blind people in France also covers this topic. Chapter 2 looks at « changes in directions » in special education. It tracks how common schools were established and their role in unifying America. It highlights how special education emerged from the dichotomy between the best interests of the common school system and the best interests of special learners.

Chapter 3 discusses the understanding of the biological aspects of disability, from social darwinism to eugenics and how they each left their mark on the approaches to providing education to disabled students. Especially looks at how IQ tests (initially developed in France, certainly part of a problematic testing culture, but which didn’t include ideas about hereditary intelligence or that IQ can’t change) were interpreted in the United States to support eugenist and racist policies.

Chapter 4 looks at the development of special classes within common schools. Lack of mandatory schooling for disabled children was criticized since the 1880s, and fully segregated settings since the beginning of the 20th century. The concept of special education classes is to provide additional resources to children needing them the most – instead of finding resources to provide similar conditions (such as small teacher/student ratio) to all students. Special classes took a hit in the 1930 but were, interestingly, revived during WWII because of the idea that everyone should work and contribute to the war effort.

Chapter 5 looks at turning points, and how we can identify in the history of special education. The Scandinavian concept of normalisation in the 1960s in one such point: it pushed the point that everyone can contribute to society. The 1970s are especially interesting: they are generally described as the moment the Civil Rights movements contributed to establishing disability rights. Winzer highlights the role of parents in this change. Instead of building special education programs based on charity, or to make-do within existing schools and structures, parents and parent associations started judiciarising the issue. In 1975, the United Nations published the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons.

Chapter 6 looks at children with behavioural disorders and the way they were described, classified through time, how they became a ‘public problem’ which should not only be handled through educational initiatives, but also through medical interventions. Chapter 7 looks at inclusion policies in public schools, why and when they were opposed (e.g., by the Deaf community who wanted control on their own community schooling conditions) and the evolution of testing techniques due to this presence of children with learning difficulties in the close community. Dyslexia and dysgraphia are addressed, and she shows a switch from test-based diagnosis to intervention-based diagnosis: first try different strategies, which one work, and how that could be obtained. Enables longitudinal observations, instead of a one-off test. So the testing culture that was used to push for eugenicist agenda was also at the core of pedagogical and didactic progress to help disabled children learn in the second part of the XXth century.

Chapter 8 looks at the professionalisation of special education: special education teachers from the beginning of the XXth century developed a strong sense of community as they were trained ‘in house’, engaging in professional and specialist events and conferences. A community of practice. Chapter 9 looks at inclusion policies, especially ‘no child left behind’ which emphasised schools’ and teachers’ accountability for pupils’ results. It also examines how calls for radically inclusive education have failed to provide a convincing alternative to the current system. It closs on a hopeful note: there’s a lot of interest and research on these issues! The book encourages further research to ever improve the inclusion of all children in schools and society.

Despite its focus on the United States, the book draw many parallels with international developments (especially Europe), hinting at the international dimension of the history of special education. Assistive technologies are, interestingly, absent, although they are a driving force (and sometimes an obstacle) for the inclusion in common classrooms of blind students. This book exemplifies how studying disability in education enables to explain much larger dynamics in the history (and sociology) of education in general. I was struck by how debates on braille and sign language are always associated with those on bilingual education for example. Winzer has also edited a book on inclusive education that is worth a read to understand contemporary challenges in providing quality education to all children.


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