Special education – a brief history

Although special education is a relatively new concept, students with disabilities have been present in every era and society. One of the earliest recordings of educating a child with behavioural difficulties is in the early 1800’s when physician Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, tamed the “wild boy” of Aveyron, France. Another noted occurrence of special education is when Anne Sullivan Macy worked tirelessly to develop reading and communication skills in the child, Helen Keller, who was deaf, could not speak and blind. In the early 19th century children with severe disabilities such as mental retardation, autism, schizophrenia, and behavioural disorders were recorded. Milder forms, such as dyslexia, became more apparent with the advent of public education.

As early 19th century values began to change, so did the treatment of those with special needs. There is documentation to support that up until this time, mentally and physically handicapped people were confined to jails where good food, clothing and hygiene was non-existent. However, as time passed, people who suffered from mental illnesses were now treated in mental hospitals and reform schools were available for children with aggression and behavioural problems. It is around this same time that schools were established for the deaf, dumb and blind and other institutions were created to treat those with severe mental retardation. Although certainly not ideal, the care and education of children with special needs had improved somewhat.

The contemporary history of special education as we know it today began after World War II.

Schools have to provide the most “least restrictive environment” possible. This is achieved through inclusion, mainstreaming, segregation, and exclusion.

The education of special needs individuals has evolved from a time where handicapped children were hidden away and even jailed to a time where individualized learning plans and specialized instruction is provided to meet their needs when they cannot be met in the regular classroom.

Thank goodness we have moved on, and with the introduction of a new SEND Code of Practice brought in in 2014, SEND education is now all embracing, fully inclusive and planning for children with special needs is now at the forefront of every head teacher’s thinking.

New legislation, also introduced in 2014 means that every school must have an accessibility plan and that this must be renewed every 3 years. Schools need to provide for all their pupils, regardless of their disability, access to the curriculum, the school buildings and the written word.