Special education law has a long history in the United States, and it is not always a pretty history. To understand our modern special education system, we need to look at the past. An examination of the history of special education law helps us understand how we arrive at the current state of things. Read on to learn about the history of special education law in the United States.

Early Programs

The idea of special education first becomes popular in America in the late 1800s, specifically the 1890s. Unfortunately, the earliest programs have some significant issues that limit their ability to enact change.

The first programs work with “at risk” children in urban areas. They provide vocational training alongside traditional classes. Additionally, they teach black children proper “moral training”. That is, they encourage children of color to assimilate to white culture.

The Move To Mid-Century America

While early programs choose to focus on at-risk populations, the idea of what special education shifts over the course of the next few decades. In the early days, special education focuses on students in racial minorities and those who are in lower socioeconomic classes. Over the first half of the 20th century, those ideas turn to focus on students with disabilities.

The tide first turns when special schools open for students who have physical impairments, such as schools for the deaf and hard of hearing or schools for the blind. However, these programs do not truly address the needs of students with mental disabilities. This changes around the 1940s.

The most common terms at the time to refer to students with mental disabilities as having “brain injuries” or “minimal brain dysfunction”. The programs for these students finally came into being. However, they were few and far between. Certain states have none at all. Even areas that do have programs for these students do not guarantee a quality program.

Brown Vs. Board Of Education

Brown vs. Board of Education is a landmark Supreme Court case in 1954 that establishes the fact that segregation of public schools is unconstitutional. This idea quickly spreads to the parents of students with mental disabilities. Schools often separate students with mental disabilities from their peers. At this point, they cannot even reach the “separate but equal” idea, they are simply separate.

After the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, parents of disabled students start to push schools to create legitimate programs for their children. They argue that Brown vs. Board of Education establishes a precedent that segregation amounts to discrimination. As this movement grows, the federal government begins to realize the need for federal legislation to protect special education students.

Come Back

Remember to check back on our blog for the second part of this series, where we analyze the legal steps the United States takes for students with disabilities.