For a long time, people with disabilities (or a disorder) were received by society with fear and uncertainty. People even believed that these differences were caused by them being possessed or punishment for a sin committed by their family. It was believed that they were ineducable, that they should be separated from society.
Let’s take a historical journey to understand where we are coming from and where we are headed.
Everyone knows the example of Sparta, where children with any kind of malformation were thrown off Mount Taygetus, as they were a hindrance to the development of their militarized society.
Starting in the 16th century, some voices began to be heard, such as that of Ponce de Leon (1513?-1584), who—in response to the Aristotelian belief that the deaf and mute people cannot learn to speak and therefore, their teaching and learning process is quite complicated, not to say impossible—began his work of teaching people who had been deaf and mute since birth. This process was accompanied by philo-anthropological theories about the conception of man.
The Renaissance provided a new view on man’s potential for learning, causing Ponce de Leon’s studies and work to be bolstered.
The educational action that Ponce de Leon began is quite connected to his work as a monk. At his monastery, he communicated with his colleagues with a sign language similar to the one used by the deaf. That is how it all began (Doctrina para los sordomudos [Doctrine for the Deaf and Mute]). Thanks to this linguistic development the personality, cognitive capabilities, communicative intent, etc. of his students could be studied closely.
One of Ponce de Leon’s essential objectives was to give a voice to those who had none. People as important as Bonet, Häuy, Braille, Pinel, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Esquirol, Itard, Seguin, Montessori, Pickler, Piaget, Decroly, Stauss, and others joined in this effort.
Looking back, we can see how the evolution of special education has a lot to do with the conception of man during the historical period in question. We’ve gone from a period of exclusion where students with any kind of difficulty were excluded not only from the educational system, but also from the social system; they were not considered citizens. In the evolution of thought, there was then a model of segregation (from the Renaissance until the 20th century). Studies and research showed that these people had the ability to live and to learn, and the first schools for the deaf and for the blind began to be founded. It is a welfare period characterized by standardization, quite linked to the medical model and focused on the condition and the classification of pathologies.
Starting in 1950, the paradigm of integration began, i.e., people with disabilities had to adapt to the existing educational systems. There was greater focus on the individual, the first curricular adaptations were made, and standardization was sought. It is interesting how the concept of learning difficulty arose in 1963; it was used by students who had trouble learning, but did not have any disabilities.
At the end of the 20th century, the latest paradigm began: educational inclusion (the Salamanca Statement of 1994 was very important. This conference demonstrated the difference between integration and inclusion), quite linked to the social view of disability, democratizing education more effectively and in a more participatory manner. It is therefore logical that inclusive education began to be implemented in countries with more mature democracies. (For example, the experiences depicted in Summerhill (A, Neil), an English school, which is based on the idea that the school should be the one to adapt to the student and not the other way around.)
Educational inclusion began by offering a new view of the “other,” one characterized by the participation of everyone in the educational community, it is focused on “school for everyone,” reinforced by the contextual ecological paradigm. Interactive and contextualized lessons, focused on cooperative and collaborative methods, are given a great deal of importance. And it organizes a number of support systems that ensure quality of life.
We return, once again, to that new social view: society adapts to the needs of students and not the other way around. The educational system is focused on individuals and on the needs that each one may have in order to address them and find equal opportunities.
New advancements in neuroeducation go hand in hand with this paradigm. They have shown us how the brain works, the pedagogy it uses, and the behaviors and mental processes that until very recently we took for granted, but for which had no scientific evidence. All of this is accompanied by a holistic and systemic view of students, where not only their cognitive abilities are considered, but also their emotional, social, motor, and moral skills.
Cerebral plasticity is one of the advances of neuroscience that has been illuminated by the change of inclusion, something that has come to show that students can improve and that pathologies may not be static.
However, there are other advances such as recognizing other types of learning (learning styles); knowing that emotions affect the brain; knowing that the brain and the body learn in an integrated fashion and that, therefore, they should not be separated; the use, structure, and functioning of the executive functions of the brain; proving that each brain is different from all others, thereby implying that diversity is a scientific fact…
In higher education, we already know that each of our students has different abilities and in each of their areas for development, our work as an educational institution is to guide them and help each of them develop their talents, skills, and aptitudes. Following the legacy of the teachers mentioned in this article, we are here to “give voices to those that have none.”