The Establishment of Schools for the Disabled

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The Establishment of Schools for the Disabled


During the nineteenth century the number of educational institutions in the United States grew rapidly. In addition to elementary schools, high schools, and colleges, schools devoted to the training and welfare of disabled children were established. Special schools were created to assist in the training and education of children who were blind, deaf, and mentally handicapped. The attempt to educate the handicapped was related to major nineteenth-century reform movements that fought against slavery and other forms of institutionalized injustice, mistreatment, and neglect.


Education for the Deaf

Children who are severely deaf are unable to learn from the spoken word and may not develop spoken language. Such children are considered mute through deafness. The lack of normal communication may lead to isolation and great difficulty in education. Efforts to teach deaf students to read, write, speak, read lips, and use sign language were reported in the seventeenth century. Thomas Braidwood (1715-1806) established the first schools for the deaf in Edinburgh and London. Other schools soon followed. Schools for the deaf adopted a mixture of approaches to instruction; some specialized in silent methods, but most used the oral method, which called for lip reading and the use of speech.

In the United States the teaching of deaf-mutes has been traced back to the work of Philip Nelson in late-seventeenth-century Massachusetts. However, the establishment of schools for the deaf did not take place until the early nineteenth century. Francis Green of Boston was an important leader in efforts to educate deaf children. His deaf son had been sent to Braidwood's school in Edinburgh. Green conducted a survey to estimate the number of deaf children in Massachusetts and concluded that a special school for the deaf was needed. In 1812 John Braidwood, a grandson of Thomas Braidwood, began teaching deaf children in Virginia. This led to the establishment of a school for the deaf.

Following a census of the deaf in Connecticut in 1812, a group of Hartford citizens organized a society for the instruction of the deaf and sent the Reverend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787-1851) to study the methods used in Paris and Great Britain. Gallaudet had studied theology at Andover but decided to devote his life to the education of deaf-mutes. In 1817 Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, a deaf instructor from Paris, established the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Hartford, an institution that is regarded as a landmark in the education of the handicapped. An appropriation from the state of Connecticut represented the first time any of the states had provided such financial support to a school for the handicapped. A major contribution from the federal government, in the form of a grant of public land, followed in 1819. Gallaudet's decision to adopt the sign language method used in Paris had a profound impact on the direction of deaf education in the United States. The method of instruction at the school was American Sign Language, with a manual alphabet, and writing. Ill health forced Gallaudet to retire in 1830.

In 1810 the Reverend John Stafford discovered a number of deaf children in New York City almshouses and attempted to teach them. This led to the founding of the New York Institution for the Deaf in 1818 with 62 students. In Philadelphia, David Seixas began teaching deaf children in 1820 and established a school one year later. The Hartford school sent Laurent Clerc to assist him. Other states soon established schools for the deaf. By the 1860s there were more than 20 schools for the deaf in the United States. Until 1867 all of the American schools for the deaf used the manual system of instruction. Oral instruction was adopted in 1867 by the Clarke school in Northampton, Massachusetts, and the Institution for the Improved Instruction for the Deaf (later the Lexington School for the Deaf) in New York City. Thus, the division between supporters of the manual (sign language) system and those who favored speech and lip reading was established in the nineteenth century. Many educators were influenced by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet's son Edward Miner Gallaudet (1837-1917), who supported teaching speech to deaf children. Gallaudet had observed this approach during a tour of European schools in 1867.

A compromise in 1886 urged instructors of the deaf to teach all students to speak and read lips, in addition to the use of sign language. This was called the "Combined System." The establishment of day schools for the deaf, however, favored the use of oralism. The first of such schools was the Horace Mann school in Boston, which was founded in 1868. Sarah Fuller, who gave Helen Keller her first speech lessons, served as principle for 41 years. By 1894 there were at least 15 day schools for the deaf and many more were soon established. Students who attended such schools were able to enroll in regular high schools and colleges. In practice, schools for the deaf followed three methods of education: oral, manual, and combined, but methods of instruction had to be adapted to the needs of individual students.

Education for the Blind

The first efforts to educate and train the blind are attributed to Valentin Haüy (1745-1822), who has been called the "father and apostle of the blind." In 1784 Haüy established the National Institution for Blind Children in Paris. By the early nineteenth century news of Haüy's success in teaching the blind to read led educators in other countries to establish similar schools. Schools were opened in Liverpool (1791), London (1799), Vienna (1805), Berlin (1806), Amsterdam (1808), Stockholm (1808), and Zurich (1809), among others.

Three schools for the blind were established almost simultaneously in the United States. American educator and physician Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876) directed the New England Asylum for the Blind (1832), later called the Perkins School for the Blind. In 1831 Howe was asked to establish an asylum for the blind. To prepare himself Howe studied the methods of instruction used in European schools. He began teaching blind children at his father's house in Boston in 1832. This small venture became the Perkins school.

Howe and his wife, Julia Ward Howe (author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and first president of the New England Woman's Suffrage Association) were leaders of the anti-slavery movement. Along with the well-known educational reformer Horace Mann (1796-1859), Howe worked to establish public education in Massachusetts as well as special educational institutions for the mentally ill, the retarded, and the blind. Mann and Howe also fought to improve conditions in insane asylums and prisons. In 1837 Massachusetts created the nation's first State Board of Education and selected Mann to be the board's first secretary.

The remarkable story of Laura Dewey Bridgman (1829-1889), a deaf-mute, brought considerable attention to the Perkins school. An attack of scarlet fever at the age of two destroyed Bridgman's sight and hearing. She entered the Perkins school in 1837, and Howe began to teach her to recognize the words for common objects and then the individual letters. Famed English writer Charles Dickens visited the school in 1842 and wrote enthusiastically about Howe's success with Bridgman. Bridgman lived at the Perkins school until her death. Her story was regarded as a landmark in the education of the deaf and blind and was told in several biographies. Although both Howe and Mann used Bridgman as proof that all children were born with a natural potential for learning, they tended to exaggerate her accomplishments and minimized the difficulties experienced in her education.

A school for the blind was opened in New York (1832) by John D. Russ, and another in Philadelphia (1833) by Julius R. Friedlander. These schools were supported by private contributions. In 1837 a state-supported school for the blind was opened in Ohio. Because educators believed that blind children required special training before reaching school age, little children were originally placed in residential nursery schools. Educators later decided that it was better to keep blind children at home if the parents could provide the proper environment. Some schools specialized in the care and education of deaf-blind children.

Systems of using tangible letters, such as wooden blocks or cast metal letters, for the blind appear as early as the sixteenth century. However, Haüy's method of printing in relief is regarded as his most important contribution to the blind. James Gall of Edinburgh produced the first book for the blind in Great Britain in 1827. The first American book for the blind was printed in Philadelphia in 1833, using a system invented by Friedlander. Many books were printed at the Perkins School using a system developed by Howe. Despite the significance of these early systems, they were generally quite difficult to use and were eventually abandoned. Louis Braille (1809-52), a blind teacher at the National Institution for Blind Children (Paris), introduced a dot system that the blind could write as well as read. William B. Wait at the New York Institute developed the "New York point" system for the Education of the Blind in the 1860s. Joel W. Smith, a blind teacher living in Boston, invented American Braille in the 1870s. These systems were used in most American schools for the blind until 1916, when a modified version of the Braille alphabet was officially adopted.

Education for the Mentally Retarded

Howe conducted important investigations concerning the condition and treatment of mentally impaired children and lobbied strenuously for legislation providing for aid and education for the blind, the deaf, and the mentally retarded. As a result of reformist calls for humane and productive care of the feeble-minded, the governor of Massachusetts established a "Commission of Inquiry into the Conditions of the Idiots of the Commonwealth." Howe wrote an influential supplement to the 1848 report, entitled "On the Causes of Idiocy." This classic work was important in framing the debate about mental retardation as a social problem, raising concerns about the influence of heredity on disease and behavior and establishing the statistical dimensions of the perceived problem.

Scientists had become interested in the problem of educating mentally retarded children at the turn of the century, when Jean Marc Gaspart Itard, a French doctor, published his classic book, The Wild Boy of Aveyron (1801). Over a five-year period Itard had attempted to train and educate a young boy found naked in the woods of Aveyron. Itard's disciple, Édouard Séguin, introduced a system of physical and sensory activities to stimulate the development of mental processes. His system influenced the work of Maria Montessori, an Italian pediatrician who introduced her own methods of training mentally retarded children in the 1890s. The "Montessori system" was later adapted to the education of normal children.

The merits of institutionalization and deinstitutionalization of the handicapped and mentally retarded was already subject to debate by the mid-nineteenth century. Hervey B. Wilbur founded a private residential school for the mentally retarded, known as the Barre School, in 1848. Two years later Howe established the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble Minded Youth, the first residential public school for the mentally retarded in the United States. Similar residential schools for the training of the mentally retarded were soon established in other states. In 1896 the first public school special class for the education of the mentally retarded was established.


The establishment of specialized schools, institutions, asylums, and hospitals was, at least in part, the outcome of the nineteenth-century tendency to use institutional solutions to solve social problems. This resulted in the transfer of functions that had previously been considered part of the private family sphere into public institutions administered by a newly emerging class of "experts" and professionals. Indeed, before 1800 confinement or residential instruction of the mentally ill and the disabled was very rare. The establishment of specialized schools for the disabled in the first half of the nineteenth century reflected a remarkably optimistic view of the advancement of knowledge and the possibility of ameliorating or even curing infirmities of mind and body. Although the early attempts to assist the disabled were often disappointing and failed to establish a path from dependency to independence, such schools called attention to the complex problems involved and provided a foundation for more sophisticated approaches.


Further Reading


Bender, Ruth E. The Conquest of Deafness: A History of the Long Struggle to Make Possible Normal Living to ThoseHandicapped by Lack of Normal Hearing. Danville, IL: Interstate Printers & Publishers, 1981.

Richards, Laura Elizabeth Howe. Samuel Gridley Howe. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1935.

Schwartz, Harold L. Samuel Gridley Howe, Social Reformer, 1801-1876. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956.

Trent, James W., Jr. Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Tyor, Peter L. and Leland W. Bell. Caring for the Retarded in America: A History. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1984.


Bledsoe, C.W. "Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe and the Family Tree of Residential Schools." Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness 87 (1993): 174-6. (A Special Issue On Residential Schools: Past, Present, Future.)

Gardner, J. F. "The Era of Optimism, 1850-1870: A Preliminary Reappraisal."Mental Retardation 31 (1993): 89-95.

Knoll, James. "Samuel Gridley Howe and Burton Blatt on True Common Sense." Mental Retardation 34 (1996): 257-9.

Valentine, Phyllis Klein. "A Nineteenth-Century Experiment in Education of the Handicapped: The American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb." New England Quarterly 64 (1991): 355-75.

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