Seeking Equity for Disabled Students
New York City has always provided education in exclusive and segregating ways, from the colonial period onward. For disabled children, exclusion and segregation have been common experiences. Sometimes education officials said this was justified by the need for specialized instruction. Other times, they made claims about some students not being fit for certain types of learning. Children with physical disabilities faced architectural barriers that made access to classrooms difficult or impossible.
A wide variety of human differences that have been stigmatized throughout history are now gathered under the term “disabled.” Thus disability is extremely diverse as a social category. Both the category of disability and the exclusion of disabled children have been linked to race, citizenship, language, class, gender, and sexuality. A hierarchy among types of disability was also visible in the geography of the nineteenth century city: charitable schools for the blind and deaf were located in Manhattan, but a school for intellectually disabled people sat on Randall’s Island in the East River, among hospitals, asylums, prisons, and orphanages housing society’s “undesirables.”
Advocates for children with disabilities have focused their efforts on building new programs or facilities for disabled children. They were motivated by a desire to help, but these new institutions (especially when they were underfunded), created problems of their own (and even horrors, as in the inhumane conditions at Willowbrook State School). Many educators, very few of whom were disabled themselves, sought to minimize students’ disabilities so they could fit in with the rest of society. For example, Deaf students were not allowed to use sign language to communicate in school settings even though sign language supported their language development and culture.
All of these problems and more prompted organizing by students, parents, and educators. Advocates used a wide range of strategies to fight for justice for disabled students, including filing lawsuits, organizing direct-action protests, building community spaces, and creating art. Parents and advocates fought for equity in many different areas, including for access to learning opportunities, architectural access, and communication access. They also pushed against unfair or racist labeling that leads to greater segregation.
NYC’s educational landscape for disabled children looks very different than it did one hundred years ago, but some things are quite unchanged. Students understood to be outside of normal in some way see much less support, care, and opportunity than they deserve. Racial and class inequalities continue to shape what disability is and how people experience it.
Although old patterns of injustice continue, disabled people, their parents, and those working in solidarity with them are shaping and pushing for their visions of equity and justice.
The Beginnings of Special Education
The earliest schools segregated disabled children in hopes they could attend school with nondisabled students or fit in with society as adults.View primary sources
Tests, Labels, and Segregation in New York City
New intelligence tests were celebrated by the era’s eugenics movement and used to keep students out of public schools.View primary sources
The Parents’ Movement for Deinstitutionalization and School Access
Parents in New York City started organizing for access to public education for their children, and more funding for state institutions.View primary sources
Fighting to Fit In: Physical Access
One of the most persistent problems for physically disabled students seeking education is the lack of wheelchair accessible schools.View primary sources
The Right to Communicate
Students who are D/deaf or hard-of-hearing or blind or low-vision need information in accessible formats, and students who are learning English have struggled to communicate.View primary sources
Behavior and Control: Disability and Incarceration
Since the mid-1800s, many people with “invisible” disabilities like intellectual or mental health disabilities have ended up in prisons and juvenile reform centers.View primary sources
Exercises of the Pupils of the NY Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb
Educators teach sign language at the “New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb"
Male Blind Ward on Blackwell’s Island
An educator for the deaf brought three boys from the blind ward on Blackwell’s Island to be educated in Manhattan in the first New York school for the blind.
Map of Randall’s, Hart, and Blackwell Islands
Social welfare reformers created institutions for the poor like hospitals, almshouses, asylums for orphans and people with disabilities, and housing for immigrants on islands away from the city.
Elizabeth Farrell and Ungraded Classes
Elizabeth Farrell teaches a classroom of children with intellectual disabilities in an “ungraded class.”
New York City’s Schools and What They Cost
The New York Times published a feature article about the complex NYC school system. The city struggled to accommodate all students as enrollment increased in part because of compulsory education laws and bans on child labor."
Testimony to the Uniform Type Committee
The NYC Board of Education held a hearing to decide between different types of tactile type to be the standard for New York City Schools.
“Delinquent Girls Tested by the Binet Scale”
Henry Goddard writes about the use of intelligence tests for “delinquent girls.”
The Binet-Simon Scale
American psychologists adapt Alfred Binet’s intelligence test for use in schools.
Survey of Cripples in New York City
Charities and hospitals caring for children who became disabled by polio conduct a citywide survey.
Chart of Inmates in the State Institutions
An annual report for the New York State Board of Charities shows the number of “inmates” that lived in state institutions like reformatories and state schools.
Jim Crow School Kids as Mentally Unfit
Queens parents criticize assignment of Black students to classes for the “mentally retarded\”
AHRC First Fundraising Billboard
Parents of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities come together to create day programs for their children, who were shut out of the public school system.
“The Feeble Minded in New York”
Parents withdraw their children from the school on Randall’s Island.
“600” Schools, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
Report published on “600” Schools for NYC DOE
The Educational Needs of the Puerto Rican Child
United Bronx Parents researched problems faced by Puerto Rican students in Bronx schools.
Jose P. vs. Ambach
New York City parents file suit to get access to schooling for disabled students.
S.O. F.E.D. U.P. Handbook for the Disabled Students of Brooklyn College, CUNY
S.O.F.E.D.U.P. organizes at Brooklyn College for accessible education for disabled students.
Geraldo Rivera’s exposé of Willowbrook and Letchworth State Schools airs.
Mom is Worthy Opponent for State
The New York Daily News writes about Willie Mae Goodman’s success in keeping her daughter Marguerite at the Gouverneur Hospital and improving the care of all residents there.
Deaf Students Protest New School Head
Students at Lexington School for the Deaf protest the hiring of a non-Deaf CEO.
Judy Heumann, “Feeling uncomfortable in high school”
Judy Heumann reflects on her school experiences in Brooklyn, NY