When most people think of special education, they probably envision students in self-contained classrooms being taught by teachers with special training. However, the history of special education is much richer and more complex than that stereotype would suggest. In this blog post, we’ll take a brief look at the origins of special education and how it has evolved over time.


Most historians trace the origins of special education to the 18th century, when anxiety about the growing number of “idle hands” among the poor led to the establishment of “asylums” for people with mental illness and other disabilities. These asylums were often little more than warehouses where people with disabilities were kept out of sight and out of mind.


It wasn’t until the early 19th century that a handful of individuals began advocating for more humane treatment of people with disabilities. Among them was French educator Laurent Clerc, who co-founded the first school for the deaf in North America in 1817. Clerc’s work helped pave the way for future advances in the field of special education.


The American Civil War that Congress began appropriating funds specifically for the education of children with disabilities. In 1867, Massachusetts became the first state to pass a law mandating that all children between the ages of 5 and 21 must attend school. This law included children with disabilities, who up until that point had largely been excluded from formal education. Other states followed suit, and by 1920, all states had some form of compulsory schooling laws on the books.

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The next major milestone in the history of special education came in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. The Court held that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, paving the way for desegregation and opening up educational opportunities for all children, including those with disabilities.


Today, approximately 6 million children receive some form of special education services in the United States. While there is still room for improvement—particularly in terms of ensuring that all students have access to quality programs—special education has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 18th-century asylums.



The history of special education is a long and complex one, dating back to the 18th century. While there have been many advances since then—including desegregation and increased access to quality programs—there is still room for improvement. Nonetheless, special education has come a long way from its humble beginnings, and today it plays an important role in ensuring that all children have access to an education.

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