History of Special Education

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It was not until the middle decades of the eighteenth century that Europe turned, for the first time, towards the education of persons with disabilities. The spirit of reform, crystallized in the philosophy and precepts of the European Enlightenment, created new vistas for disabled persons and the pioneers who ventured to teach them. Although special education emerged in a number of national contexts, France was the crucible where innovative pedagogies to assist those deaf, blind, and intellectually disabled emerged and flourished (Winzer, 1986).

Following the French initiatives, movements to provide services for those in the normative categories of deaf, blind, and intellectually disabled were contemporaneous in continental Europe, Britain, and North America. Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, individual deviations were rarely tolerated and little was done for those who in some way disrupted the norms of a society. Disability was not an innocuous boundary; rather, it was a liability in social and economic participation.

People perceived as disabled – whatever the type or degree – were lumped together under the broad categorization of idiot, scorned as inferior beings and deprived of rights and privileges. This early period is replete with innumerable stories of healing, many imbued with an Indeed, many special educators seem curiously disinterested in the foundations of the field; historical knowledge is learned incidentally and unintentionally (Mostert & Crockett, 1999–2000; Winzer, 2004).

To some, history becomes increasingly selective, with the past made over to suit present intentions; others speak to the ‘lack of history’ (Renzaglia, Hutchins & Lee, 1997, p. 361). At the same time, some contemporary writers disparage earlier events, programmes, and pioneers in favour of contemporary models. Some point to fossilized traditions; others hold that if today’s inclusive movement embodies the best ideals of social justice then the past, by extension, had to be unjust (Winzer, 2004).

Implicit to this position is a steadfast unwillingness to learn from the wisdom of the accumulated past. The middle decades of the eighteenth century witnessed the pervasive influence of the European Enlightenment. While the intellectual project of the Enlightenment was to build a sound body of knowledge about the world, its humanitarian philosophy prompted ideas about the equality of all people and the human responsibility to take care of others, particularly individuals outside the private circle of the home and the family.

Reform movements sprang up, aimed at the improvement of the well-being of groups of individuals, varying from poor people and slaves to prisoners, the insane, and disabled people. In France, the Abbe Michel Charles de l’Epee (sign language) assimilated Enlightenment ideals of equality, as well as novel concepts about language and its development. He joined these to the sensationalist philosophy of John Locke and the French philosophers to promote innovative approaches to the education of deaf persons.

If de l’Epee’s doctrine promoting a silent language of the hands was not unprecedented, it was nevertheless revolutionary in the context of the times. In devising and instructing through a language of signs, the Abbe gave notice that speech was no longer the apex of instruction in the education of deaf persons. Simultaneously, he influenced and guided innovations for other groups with disabilities, specifically those blind, deaf blind, and intellectually disabled. Following de l’Epee’s successful mission with deaf students, Valentin Hauy in 1782 initiated the instruction of blind persons using a raised print method.

Somewhat later, in 1810, Edouard Seguin devised pedagogy for those considered to be mentally retarded. The French educational initiatives travelled the Atlantic to be adopted by pioneer educators in US and Canada. Rejection of French innovations did not imply that British advances were minor. On the contrary. Building on the prerogatives of earlier pioneers, teachers and clergy such as Thomas Braidwood and John Townsend promoted education for deaf persons. Schemes to assist other groups soon followed.

By the close of the eighteenth century in Europe and Britain, the instruction of disabled persons was no longer confined to isolated cases or regarded merely as a subject of philosophic curiosity. Permanent facilities were established, staffed by a cadre of teachers experimenting with novel and innovative pedagogical methods. The French endeavors formed the core of systems and methods adopted in the United States and much of British North America (Canada).

In the latter, however, the Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick initially adopted British pedagogy (see Winzer, 1993). Founded on a humanitarian philosophy, evangelical commitment, and unbounded philanthropy, they established from 1817 onwards a complex of institutions designed to cater to the unique needs of exceptional individuals. Pedro Ponce de Leon(1578) in Spain created the first documented experience about education of deaf children (from nobility) AbbeCharles Michel de l’Epee(1760) in Paris created the “Institutpour sourds”(Institute for deaf) Louis Braille invented “Braille script”(1829).

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