Top 20 Famous Contributors to the Special Education Field
Throughout the history of special education, over 4.5 million children were denied adequate schooling. But, over the years, many people — often disabled themselves — focused on education for people with disabilities. Some of these individuals broke barriers by fighting for their own educational experiences. The following list of 20 famous contributors to the special education field contains just a handful of all the individuals who have contributed to this effort. The following list is in chronological order, from the 16th century to current news.
- Pedro Ponce de León (d. 1584) was a Spanish Benedictine monk believed to be the first person to develop a method for teaching deaf/mutes during the 16th century. Details of his methods either were never recorded or have been lost. Many laymen believed at that time that the deaf were too simple-minded to be eligible for salvation under Christian doctrine.
- Abbot Charles-Michel de l’Epée (d. 1789) was a philanthropic educator of 18th-century France who has become known as the “Father of the Deaf.” What distinguished Épée from educators of the deaf before him, and ensured his place in history, is that he allowed his methods and classrooms to be available to the public and other educators.
- Abbot Roche-Amboise Sicard (d. 1822) took l’Epée’s sign language and further perfected it. He was made principal of a school for the deaf at Bordeaux in 1786, and in 1789, on the death of the Abbé de l’Épée, succeeded him at Paris. He met Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet while traveling in England and invited Gallaudet to visit the famous school for the deaf in Paris.
- Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (d. 1851) helped fund and was for many years the principal of the first institution for the education of the deaf in North America. When opened in 1817, it was called the “American Asylum for Deaf-Mutes” in Connecticut, but it is now known as the American School for the Deaf.
- Louis Braille (d. 1852) became blind after he accidentally stabbed himself in the eye with his father’s awl. He later became an inventor and designed braille writing, which enables blind people to read through feeling a series of organized bumps representing letters. This concept was beneficial to all blind people from around the world and is commonly used even today.
- Edward Miner Gallaudet (d. 1917), Thomas’ son, was the president of Columbia University for the deaf from 1864–1910. He sought college status for that university and received it with President Abraham Lincoln’s help. The school then became known as the first college for the dear, or Gallaudet University. He was a staunch advocate of sign language.
- Dr. Jacob Bolotin (d. 1924) was the first congenitally blind man to receive a medical license. Dr. Bolotin lived and practiced in Chicago during the early part of the twentieth century and was particularly known for his expertise on diseases of the heart and lungs. He used his many public speaking engagements to advocate for the full inclusion of the blind in education, employment, and all other aspects of society.
- Eglantyne Jebb (d. 1928) was a British social reformer who wrote the first draft of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, a series of related children’s rights proclamations adopted by the International Save the Children Union, Geneva, in 1923 and endorsed by the League of Nations General Assembly in 1924.
- Clifford W. Beers (d. 1943) was a young businessman who had a mental breakdown and recovered to write about it in A Mind That Found Itself in 1908. He created the National Committee on Mental Hygiene to move Americans away from state hospital custodialism and to emphasize prevention.
- Herbert Hoover (d. 1964) endorsed Jebb’s work and created the Charter of the American Child. “For every child who is blind, deaf, crippled, or otherwise physically handicapped, and for the child who is mentally handicapped, such measures as will early discover and diagnose his handicap, provide care and treatment, and so train him that he may become an asset to society rather than a liability.”
- Helen Keller (d. 1968) was an American author, activist and lecturer. She was the first deaf/blind person to graduate from college. She was not born blind and deaf; it was not until nineteen months of age that she came down with an illness described by doctors as “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain”, which could have possibly been scarlet fever or meningitis.
- Dr. Gunnar Dybwad (d. 2001) persuaded the leaders of the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children to sue on behalf of disabled children in 1969. The case, PARC versus Pennsylvania, is credited with establishing the rights of children with disabilities to get a free and equal public education.
- Rosemary Kennedy (d. 2005) was the third child and eldest daughter of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. A lobotomy performed on Rosemary in 1940 left her permanently disabled. She inspired her sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, to begin a summer day camp that grew into the Special Olympics, and inspired her brother, President John F. Kennedy, to initiate sweeping legislation designed to improve the quality of life for Americans with disabilities.
- Anne McDonald is an Australian author and an activist for the rights of people who have communication disabilities. She developed severe cerebral palsy from a birth defect, and was institutionalized throughout her teens. At age 18, she repeatedly fought the system in Australia to achieve, through facilitated communication, her own deinstitutionalization, independence, and enrollment in a university.
- Rosemary Crossley is another Australian author and advocate for disability rights. She wrote, with Anne McDonald, the book, Annie’s Coming Out, the story of Anne’s breakthrough to communication. She later wrote a second book, Speechless: Facilitating Communication for People Without Voices.
- Madeleine Will, in 1986, proposed what has been called the Regular Education Initiative. Citing concerns about some unintended negative effects of special education “pull-out” programs, her proposal suggested that greater efforts to educate mildly and moderately disabled students in the mainstream of regular education should be pursued. In 2004, Ms. Will was named Director of the National Policy Center of the National Down Syndrome Society.
- John Elder Robison, brother to Augusten Burroughs (author of Running with Scissors) wrote his own memoir on what it was like to grow up with Asperger’s Syndrome. The book, Look Me in the Eye, published in 2007, was a groundbreaking look into how one person coped with an unknown disease until he learned about Asperger’s at age 39. Robison now serves as a volunteer spokesman for the Graduate Autism Program at Our Lady of the Elms College in Chicopee, Massachusetts.
- Dr. Stephen Shore was nonverbal until four and diagnosed with “atypical development with strong autistic tendencies,” Stephen Shore was regarded as “too sick” to be treated on an outpatient basis and recommended for institutionalization. Fortunately, his parents disagreed. He is now completing his doctoral degree in special education at Boston University with a focus on helping people on the autism spectrum develop their capacities to the fullest extent possible.
- Temple Grandin is a Doctor of Animal Science and professor at Colorado State University, bestselling author, and consultant to the livestock industry in animal behavior. As a person with high-functioning autism, Grandin is also widely noted for her work in autism advocacy and is the inventor of the “hug machine” designed to calm hypersensitive persons.
- Susan Lee Barker, a special education teacher, brought a lawsuit against the school district that she worked for. She took the brave position that if anti-discrimination laws protect kids with disabilities, and prohibit retaliation against kids for taking action to protect their own rights, then those laws must also protect the people who stand up for those kids. In 2009, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in the now-famous case, Barker v. Riverside County Office of Education.
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