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What's Special About Special Education

by Maurice H. Fouracre - 1953

Through experimentation in departments of special education in public schools and teacher-training institutions, steps have been taken to modify and adjust school programs so that handicapped children's education may be commensurate with their needs and abilities. In this article, four such adaptations are explained and examples are given of curriculum modification, special methods of instruction, special classroom equipment, and adjusted school schedule.

IN every school system there are some children who, because they deviate markedly from the so-called "normal," require special skills and services on the part of teachers and other school personnel.1 These children cannot adjust to the school program without this help. Some of them are physically handicapped—blind, deaf, epileptic, crippled, or have neuromuscular disabilities. Some differ significantly in mental ability, being either seriously retarded in intellectual development or exceptionally gifted. Others are emotionally disturbed or for some other reason are unable to make a proper social adjustment in school and community.

These pupils are called exceptional children or handicapped children. Basically, our attention in special education is centered on them as children and not primarily as handicapped individuals. They deviate to some degree from the non-handicapped, but essentially they go through similar stages of physical, social, mental, and emotional development. Like his fellows, the exceptional child has certain basic needs which must be recognized: the need for the feeling of belonging, the need for security, and the need to experience success and achievement.

The number of exceptional children in any community may be small, but the problems of providing for them properly may be many. Yet it is our responsibility as general educators or special educators to see that each child has an opportunity for the fullest possible growth through special services in education. These may include a radical modification of the curriculum, special methods of instruction, special equipment, or an adjusted school schedule. Under present conditions of school organization they can sometimes be best offered through the medium of a special class in the regular school building or in a special school. In many cases the special services may be provided for individual pupils in the regular class. Whatever the type of exceptional condition and wherever the child may be, the important consideration is that his needs be identified and satisfactorily met.

In our society "all the children of all the people" are entitled to education commensurate with their mental and physical ability. Democracy is therefore committed to the principle of education for all, regardless of race, creed, or abilities. Special education represents an attempt on the part of the school to furnish opportunities to individual children who deviate from the normal physically, mentally, emotionally, or socially.

Children who are handicapped do not profit from the group education techniques used in most of our schools for teaching children of average ability. Often, handicapped children attending the regular class become problems for the regular grade teacher.

Society has not constructed enough classrooms, has not kept classes small enough, and has not provided enough highly qualified teachers to afford these children the special attention they need. For this reason it is necessary to train exceptional children in the regular classroom or in special schools and classes.

It would be extremely difficult to house in the regular classrooms all the children who need special services, for the simple reason that a conservative estimate of the number of children in the United States needing special education is approximately 4,000,000. According to the latest figures (1948), there were 378,059 children being educated in special schools and classes.2 This was, however, an increase of 167,256 children during the eighteen-year period 1930-1948.3

From these figures one may readily conclude that in the United States today about 3,500,000 children who need special education are not receiving it. Handicapped children in vast numbers are either being held in regular classes or being deprived entirely of an education. Approximately one out of every ten children needing special education at the present time is being served. What will happen to the nine children who are being denied special services? What kind of citizens will they be when they reach their majority?

These are questions which concern us as educators and laymen. These are the problems which we must attempt to solve through implementation of special services and legislation.

Through experimentation in departments of special education in public schools and teacher-training institutions, steps have been taken to modify and adjust school programs so that handicapped children's education may be commensurate with their needs and abilities. Four such adaptations are curriculum modification, special methods of instruction, special classroom equipment, and adjusted school schedule. A single example of each type of adaptation is given, although many modifications are in existence in special-education programs throughout the United States.


In classes for the mentally retarded (IQ 50-75) the New York City Public Schools have developed a program known as Occupational Education which starts when the child with retarded mental development is placed in the special class. This placement is usually at about the chronological age of eight or nine when the child's mental age is approximately four to six.

It is a core program with academic activities geared to the child's needs and abilities clustered around the main activity or hub. Each year the central theme changes, but the general pattern is consistent for all the children, in that the beginning cores are centered around the home, the neighborhood, the borough, and the city. The purpose of these cores is to present to the child a functional type of education starting with the known and gradually expanding to a wider sphere as he grows older and supposedly more capable. Field trips, audiovisual aids, and concrete experiences are emphasized. Academic subject matter is introduced as the need arises, yet always in terms of the child's abilities.

The realistic, functional experiences for the children are further developed as the pupils approach adolescence. Here, recognition is given to the fact that these children are not able to seek future employment in skilled and professional positions, therefore job explorations are made in areas in which they will seek employment.

The first of the last four cores gives the male pupil an opportunity to explore job areas such as building maintenance, auto maintenance, garment trades, cleaning, pressing, and laundry work, household service, and food handling. Female students engage in exploratory jobs such as care of the sick, care of children, household service, cleaning, pressing, and laundry work, garment trades, and food handling. Each job area is experienced for a period of approximately six weeks when the pupil is about thirteen or fourteen years of age. It is made as realistic as possible in a classroom setting, and field trips are conducted to specific industries so that pupils may see the jobs in actual operation. Functional academic work is given to the pupils so that they may be better qualified for simple, routine jobs which require the ability to read and write.

The pupil, with the help of the teacher, learns to know his abilities as well as his limitations in terms of a particular job. Consequently, the next core, "Choosing, Getting, and Holding a Job," becomes valuable as a counseling and guidance experience.

The final two cores are as realistic and functional as those preceding them, and as a result the "graduates" are much more employable than if they had been subjected to a traditional, highly regimented program of academic education.


The second adaptation which makes special education special is the introduction of modified methods of instruction because of a particular disability. Everyone knows that the special educator teaches the blind child Braille or the profoundly deaf child lip-reading, but few are aware of the special methods used in teaching the child who has learning difficulties because of brain damage without the accompaniment of mental retardation.

Some of the deviations in these brain-injured children are abnormalities in perception, both visual and auditory, which cause stimuli to be perceived in a distorted manner. Children with brain damage frequently show perseverative tendencies which may be manual and/or oral. Furthermore, many show pronounced abnormalities of distractibility or disinhibition.

To a large measure the educational and emotional problems of brain-injured children can be traced to their organic restlessness and distractibility. Because the brain lesions are medically untreatable, the teacher's efforts must extend in two directions: (1) manipulating and controlling the external environment, and (2) educating the child to exercise voluntary control.

Pronounced distractibility caused by movement, color, or noise makes it necessary to teach these children in almost complete isolation. Thus the special-class teacher makes provision for individual teaching. She capitalizes on the fact that color, which can be a disinhibiting factor, can be used to advantage. Color may cause the brain-damaged child to fixate on an object which may be unrelated to the task at hand, but the specially trained teacher will use color to attract the child's attention. Reading charts, for example, may have alternate words and sentences in different colors so as to fixate the child's attention on a given word or line. As the color changes, the child's eyes move from one word to the next, slowly at first, until a child matures enough that these "crutches" can be eliminated.

Frequently it is necessary to eliminate extraneous visual stimulation by blocking out part of the page and exposing only a small section of printed matter or of pictures at a time. Likewise, if the child is especially distractible by noise it may be necessary for him to use an auditory training unit to eliminate extraneous auditory stimulation and to accentuate the teacher's voice.

The special-class teacher must have understanding of the child's problems and then adapt her teaching to his needs.


Special equipment is used most frequently in those classrooms serving the child who has orthopedic or neuromuscular disabilities. Here the children may use pencils or crayons wrapped with clay or adhesive tape to fit their withered fingers and hands. Standing tables are devised for children who cannot stand unaided. Relaxation chairs are used by children whose sitting balance is not adequate for them to sit without being strapped.

Children who have no control over movements of the upper extremities, or who have deformed fingers and hands may have great difficulty in experiencing the thrill of "scribbling" or writing unless they hold a pliable wet sponge and make marks on the blackboard. Others having the same type of disability may learn to use the typewriter if a shield is placed over the keys and the keys are struck with the end of a pencil or a stick.

The special-class teacher's ingenuity is called upon constantly to devise ways and means of having the child who is handicapped participate in as many school activities as possible.


School schedules must be adjusted because of the individual's handicap or because the school system is unable to provide for the particular child in the existing program.

The most common example of the adjusted schedule is for the child whose handicap is so severe that transportation problems make it impossible for him to attend school. Homebound instruction is provided under most departments of special education, a teacher being sent to the child's home periodically to give individual instruction. In some communities the home-school telephone is used to provide the homebound handicapped child with more normal school experiences.

Bedside teaching is often necessary for children hospitalized for long periods of time. Consequently, departments of special education assign teachers to this type of service, thus assisting the child to return later to the regular school program.

School or class schedules are often modified for children who need other special services such as speech correction and occupational or physical therapy. For some children with severe physical handicaps these special services require as much as a half of the school day, and thus classroom experiences are reduced. It is felt, however, that the physically handicapped child should be aided in reaching his maximum physical growth for his age, and in terms of his particular disability, at the earliest possible time.


The objectives of the education of children who deviate from the normal or average must be in accord with the principles of democracy. Actually these objectives do not differ from those for all children. Exceptional children, like others, must participate in the activities of the workaday world and assume responsibilities in keeping with their capacities as citizens in a democracy.

Handicapped children do not profit sufficiently from the group education techniques used in our schools for teaching children with average physical and mental ability. Our society has not as yet constructed enough classrooms, has not kept classes small enough, and has not produced enough highly qualified teachers. For these reasons, it is necessary to provide special services for exceptional children, either in the regular classroom or in the special schools and classes, if they are to develop according to their potentialities.

Children having severe visual impairments require different techniques of instruction from children having substantially normal vision. Likewise, children with marked hearing losses require additional services and special instruction. Children who are crippled require special facilities for their physical care and must have appropriate adjustments in their daily schedules if they are to make satisfactory progress. Even when all these provisions are made, exceptional children in the same class with normal children and with the same teacher, all trying to learn under the same methods of instruction, do not have equal opportunity with others. Educational equality demands the consideration of individual differences and needs and the provision of special services to meet these needs.

1 An All College Lecture delivered at Teachers College, July 29, 1953.

2 "Statistics of Special Schools and Classes for Exceptional Children," Biennial Survey of Education in the United States, 1947-48.

3 White House Conference, Special Education: The Handicapped and Gifted (New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1931).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 55 Number 3, 1953, p. 140-144
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 4790, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 5:04:46 PM

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