The First One Hundred Years of Special Education in America?

1817 to 1925



This article traces the early history of educational opportunities for children with disabilities in the United States, from private institutions, to segregated public institutions, to public day schools. In all but a few exceptional instances, children with disabilities were completely excluded from public education prior to the twentieth century, and commonly were viewed as dumb, crippled, feeble-minded, mentally-defective, or diseased under a medical model of disability.

The First One Hundred Years of Special Education in America?

1817 to 1925

Historically, the United States guaranteed few rights to an education for its children. Under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, our forefathers left education in the hands of the individual states by omitting it as an enumerated domain of the federal government.1 States rose to the challenge, nonetheless, by the end of the nineteenth century, establishing widespread, locally-controlled, publicly-funded day (i.e., “elementary”) schools, vastly more available to the American general public than in Europe.2 While Boston created the first public day school for the deaf in 1869, in all but a few exceptional instances, the states completely excluded children with disabilities from public education prior to the twentieth century.3 This article overviews the unique history of those exceptions.

Private and Charitable Initiatives

Private entities, such as charitable organizations and institutions, were first to offer something of an education for select groups of children with disabilities. Deaf and blind children, primarily of families with financial means, were the first beneficiaries of these services.4 Prominent Hartford (Connecticut) citizens were behind the 1817 opening of the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb.5 Private instruction for the blind began soon thereafter in New York (1822) and Philadelphia (1823).6

Early Public Programs

The earliest publicly-funded institutions for the deaf began as state schools in Kentucky (1823) and Ohio (1827).7 In 1852, Pennsylvania began funding a private school, the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children at Germantown,8 for children that today might be identified as having mental retardation, specific learning disability, or emotional disturbance under current special education law. Massachusetts and New York established comparable “experimental” schools in 1848 and 1851, as did Ohio, Connecticut, Kentucky, and Illinois by 1865.9 In 1864, Congress created the National College for the Deaf and Dumb in Washington, D.C. (later renamed Gallaudet College in 1893, then Gallaudet University in 1986).10 These programs were almost exclusively residential in nature, drawing children away from their families and communities.

Public Day Schools

Public day-school programs specifically for children with disabilities came somewhat regularly into existence around 1900. Large northern cities were at the forefront of these efforts, including Boston, Chicago, and New York. The first classes for “cripples” (i.e., children with mobility impairments) were in Chicago (1899) and New York (1906).11 The first class for the blind was in Chicago in 1900 expanding to classes in sixteen cities by 1922.12 “Sight-saving” classes, as they were known, for children with partial-blindness (i.e., visual impairments) began in Boston in 1913. By 1928, there were 319 sight-saving classes in the United States.13 Day-school classes numbered seventy-four for deaf students in 1922, and classes for children with intellectual disabilities (going by names such as “opportunity,” “adjustment,” or “atypical” classes) were operating in 315 cities by 1927, 39 of which were in Massachusetts and 38 in New York.14 Atlanta likely operated the greatest number of day classes for children with disabilities in the South. It opened a class for deaf children in 1911, and was running seven classes for “mentally defective children” in 1920.15

Public Institutions

By 1925, there were forty-eight state institutions and eight private institutions for the blind, sixty-one state schools for the deaf, and all but nine states and the District of Columbia operated residential state facilities for the “feeble-minded.”16 Residents of this latter type of institution, along with residents of institutions for “defective delinquent boys” and “epileptics,” often were referred to as “inmates.”17 “Colonies” for epileptics operated in at least thirteen states in 1924.18 These various institutions served the vast majority of children with disabilities who received any services whatsoever by the 1920s. State court decisions routinely perpetuated the exclusion of children with intellectual, physical and sensory impairments from the services of public education.19

Programs for African Americans

African-American children with disabilities, historically, were much less likely to receive special education services of any sort (i.e., institutional or day-class), though were far more likely to receive services in institutional settings.20 For instance, in 1922 while public day classes for both blind and deaf children were on the rise, none were available for African-American children, though thirteen states had state schools for blind African Americans exclusively, and eleven states had state schools for deaf African Americans exclusively.21

Twentieth Century

The number and variety of programs for children with disabilities grew in the twentieth century. Rarely was there anything ‘special’ about these programs. Yet, American society largely continued to view many people with disabilities as being crippled, feeble-minded, mentally-defective, or diseased. under a medical model of disability. By 1975, when the first comprehensive federal legislation was enacted to guarantee children with disabilities a free and appropriate public education, over half of all children with disabilities were denied educational opportunity.22


[1] Nelda H. Cambron-McCabe et al.,Public School Law1–2 (5th ed. 2004).

[2] Claudia Goldin,A Brief History of Education in the United States(NBER Historical Paper 119), at 1–2 (1999), available at

[3] J. E. Wallace Wallin,The Education of Handicapped Children9 (1924).

[4]Cf.James J. Cremins,Legal and Political Issues in Special Education4–5 (1983).

[5] Phyllis Klein Valentine,A Nineteenth-Century Experiment in Education of the Handicapped: The American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, 64 New England Q. 355, 358–59 (1991) (citations omitted).

[6] Wallin, supra note 3, at 10.

[7] Id. at 9.

[8] Id. at 25 (later moved to Elwyn, PA).

[9] Id. at 25–26.

[10] History of Gallaudet University,, at (last visited May. 22, 2008).

[11] Eva T. Honesty,The Handicapped Child, 1 J. Negro Educ. 304, 308 (1932).

[12] Id. at 307.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at 308.

[15] Barry M. Franklin,Progressivism and Curriculum Differentiation: Special Classes in the Atlanta Public Schools, 1898–1923, 29 Hist. Educ. Q. 571, 572–75 (1989).

[16] Honesty,supra note 11, at 307–08.

[17]SeeWallin,supra note 3, at 26.

[18] Id. at 28.

[19] Daniel H. Melvin II,The Desegregation of Children with Disabilities, 44 DePaul L. Rev. 599, 603–04 (1995) (citations omitted).

[20] Honesty, supra note 11, at 307–08.

[21] Id.

[22] William N. Myhill,No FAPE for Children with Disabilities in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program: Time to Redefine a Free Appropriate Public Education, 89 Iowa L. Rev. 1051, 1055 (2004).


This article was first published by the author in August 2008 on Knol. It was migrated by the author to the newly established eJournal of Disability Law & Policy on WordPress in November 2011. While published on Knol, this article received the “Top Viewed Knol Award” and had been viewed 8,262 times at the time of migration.

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