Picture a world in which children with special needs are denied basic rights: the ability to go to school, to learn to read and write, to be able to go to college and make a decent living. No matter how unbelievable it might seem to a dedicated special education teacher today, only a couple of short generations ago, this was the harsh reality for children with disabilities. There have been advancements in special education since then, in technology as well as in legislation and cultural acceptance, but most of them have been fairly recent.
- Sign Language - Possibly the first major advancement in educating children with disabilities was the creation of sign language. Although using various gestures to communicate meaning had likely been used for centuries, it was Juan Pablo Bonet who in 1620 wrote the first book establishing hand shapes for various speech sounds, based on his observations of the education of a deaf child. Signing was also used in deaf communities in 17th century Massachusetts and 18th century France, both of which have contributed to the formation of American Sign Language.
- Braille - Just as sign language provided deaf children with a way to communicate and learn, the creation of the Braille alphabet enabled blind children to read and write for the first time. The alphabet was based on a secret code that had been created for Napoleon, but turned out to be unsuccessful due to its complexity. When its creator, Charles Barbier, brought it to a blind school, Louis Braille saw its potential and simplified it for blind children's use.
- Hearing Aids - Advancements in hearing aid technology allowed children with hearing difficulties to learn and participate in life in ways they had previously been unable to do. Simple hearing aids in the form of curved, cone-shaped tubes had actually been in use for several hundred years when Alexander Graham Bell started experimenting with carbon-based microphones, trying to find a solution that would allow deaf children to hear. His experiments resulted in the invention of the telephone in 1876, but Miller Reese Hutchison used Bell's concept to invent the first electric hearing aid two decades later.
- The President's Panel on Intellectual Disability - Despite sign language, Braille, and hearing aids that made it possible for children with physical disabilities to learn and continue their education, not a lot was understood about mental disabilities when John F. Kennedy was president in the early 1960s. In 1961, the new president established the President's Panel on Mental Retardation, which gave its recommendations the following year. As a direct result, in 1963 President Kennedy legislated federally funded mental health care, including funding to train special education teachers.
- Bureau of Education for Individuals with Special Needs - In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act established the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped, which later came to be called the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). In its early days, this didn't mean mandated special education in public schools, but it was a sign of coming changes.
- Supreme Court Grants Equal Right to Education for Students with Disabilities - Despite the legislation of the 1960s, most kids with disabilities were still not being educated in public schools. In 1972, however, two Supreme Court decisions took a big step in the right direction. In both PARC v. Pennsylvania and Mills v. D.C. Board of Education, the court ruled that children with disabilities had the same right to education as any other child.
- Education for All Handicapped Children Act - In 1975, federal legislation was finally passed in favor of special education, ending the practice of denying education to children with disabilities. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) required public schools to provide education for all kids, including those with disabilities.
- Americans with Disabilities Act - The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, known as the ADA, further strengthened the case for special education by prohibiting discrimination against someone based on a disability. The ADA reinforced Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which hadn't been applied to education early on.
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act - The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990 was essentially an amended version of the EAHCA. In addition to requiring schools to provide education for children with disabilities, the schools also had to assess the child's needs and tailor the education to that specific child. Special education now had to prepare the child for continuing education and/or working and living independently.
- No Child Left Behind - In addition to the many laws requiring special education programs in public schools, in 2001 No Child Left Behind established important reading and math proficiency goals for all children nationwide, including those with special needs.
Further advancements with wheelchairs and scooters have allowed kids with physical limitations to get around better, and current technology offers many applications and tools that can be used to enhance special education programs. A Master’s Degree in Special Education can help teachers become more knowledgeable of the new advancements and trends for special education students.