HomeADAThe History of Learning Disabilities – Part Two
In the first installation of this series, I discussed a couple of stories about how people with LDs were treated in the past and detailed some bullet points from the late 1700s through the 19th century.
In this entry, I’ll go into some of what happened in the 20thcentury. Since it’ll be on the long side, I’ve decided to put advances in our current century in a third, and final entry.

A marker containing more info on this law and related
By Gbauer8946 [CC-BY-SA-3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

In the early 20th and late 19th centuries, the concept of eugenics was a popular form of “improving” the population through selective sterilization and partnering. Among the undesirables were non-Caucasian individuals, criminals and those with “mental defects”.
Sickeningly enough, this act became law in some states, starting with Indiana and spreading to 24 other states. “Confirmed idiots, imbeciles and rapists” were the target group. 20 years later, the law was redacted, but only after officials analyzed the individual cases.
The unempathic and fearful nature of the law was blatantly trotted out in the writing of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the original author. He wrote, “(It) is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Even though the law is no longer in effect, some of the attitudes still prevail in some circles, and people who were directly affected all those years ago still feel the sting. On June 20th, 2012, a woman tried to get compensation for her forced sterilization from North Carolina.
She was denied.
We now know that dyslexia isn’t effected by which hand is dominant, but in 1925, Samuel Orton decided to see if there was a connection in a study. What set this apart was because he theorized that it was a neurological phenomenon.
Although the left-handed theory didn’t pan out, it was later discovered that many dyslexic brains are actually slightly bigger on the right side, which is popularly thought to control the left side of the body.

Long after the horror ended, Auschwitz still carries
echoes of its terrible history.
By Dudva (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

WWII is notorious for the horrific slaughter of Jewish people in the nightmarish concentration camps. However, many other groups were also targeted, including Gypsies, people of color and those who lead a “life unworthy of life”. That last category explicitly targeted those with physical or intellectual disabilities. It’s estimated that 75,000 and 250,000 people were murdered for that reason.

As a side note, Albert Einstein, who is now thought to have had dyslexia, ADHD or be part of the autism spectrum, was one of the Nazi’s top targets. However, it wasn’t because of his neurology, but because he was a brilliant Jewish scientist.
The term “learning disabled” was publicly used for the first time by Samuel A. Kirk at a Chicago based conference, “Exploration into the Problems of the perceptually handicapped Child”. This conference was a small first step towards more social awareness the LD phenomenon.
In January, the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities was founded, which later evolved

John F. Kennedy, who was also dyslexic,
was president during these years up
until his tragic death.
Abbie Rowe [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

into Learning Disabilities Association of America, or LDA.

The Civil Rights Bill also passed this year, but it failed to acknowledge those with disabilities. It remained legal to discriminate against them in the workplace and educational institutions.
Legal strides were still being made, as in this year, an act called the Children with Specific Learning Disabilities Act came into being. The next year, this act was made part of a larger bill called the Education of Handicapped Act.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was added, which illegalized discrimination against the disabled in public universities, federal agencies and other public institutions.
The precursor to IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) was formed. It was called the Education for Handicapped Children Act, and went into effect over a decade after the Civil Rights Bill.
A council promoting educational policies practices, procedures and programs which ensures equal opportunity for people with classified disabilities was created. This is the National Council on Disability.
The DSM, or Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, included ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) for the first time.
The DSM is what the American Psychiatric Association refers to when diagnosing mental, emotional and learning conditions.
Support for disabled individuals was made international through the implementation of “The World Program of Action Concerning the Disabled”. This program stated that those with disabilities are equal in all ways to every other citizen of the world.
A later use of the fMRI to determine the difference between
brain function in autism vs brain function in a control
By Ralph-Axel Müller,
used by Kendall Powell.Wnt
[CC-BY-2.5], from Wikimedia Commons

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by Justin Dart and George H.W. Bush. Protections under IDEA were also extended to those with autism and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).

Dr. Guinevere Eden and her team first used the new fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to see which parts of dyslexics’ brains were used when processing sensory information. This was the first step in gaining a deeper understanding of the LD.
IDEA was reauthorized, and amended to include educational curriculum for teachers to understand the IEP (independent educational plan) process. It also gave students more access to mainstream classes and included them in state assessments. ADHD was given protection under this law.
Stay tuned for one more entry in this series!

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