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Segregation as a teaching strategy

Aja McKee and Audri Sandoval Gomez

This module aligns with the following DSE tenets:

  • contextualizes disability within political and social

  • privileges the interest, agendas, and voices of people labeled with disability/disabled people

  • promotes social justice, equitable and inclusive educational opportunities, and full and meaningful access to all aspects of society for people labeled with disability/disabled people.

  • assumes competence and reject deficit models of disability.


What have we learned since then?


Segregation has always been a dangerous and deceptive part of society. While segregation has been constant, the clothing in which it is dressed has changed. At various times throughout history, society has segregated individuals by gender, race, and disability. The beginning of the segregation of disabled individuals in America, started with institutions in the early to mid-1800s. Institutions were developed in an effort to provide disabled men, women, and children, with the care, comfort, and rehabilitation they needed and could not get at home. 


The most recent segregation has happened in special education classrooms, where students are placed to attain specialized skills, individualized instruction and attention; educators claimed they could not get in a general education setting. Segregation is deceptive and not always apparent to the human eye. It can look appealing to some, and many times start with good intentions. From there, as society can see from looking at history, segregation has quickly turned into more than a place. It has turned into an experience which lacks the outcomes previously hoped for. Segregation is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. 




While some people were segregated to ride in the back of buses...






others have been segregated on completely separate buses.


Essential Questions

  1. How has segregation continued to play a part in today's education system?

  2. Can you identify the relationship between historical examples of segregation and the segregation of individuals with disabilities?

  3. How can the social model of DSE promote inclusion in our education system?



  • Understand the relationship of segregation between gender, race, and disability.

  • Develop an awareness of the historical treatment of individuals with disabilities.  

  • Examine segregation of individuals with disabilities as nothing more than a teaching tool.

  • Begin to develop new ideas for teaching students with disabilities that promote inclusion.



Some of the first accounts of segregation were institutions for disabled individuals. The story of institutions first began in the early 1800s in America, though they had existed in European countries for many years prior to this (Shorter, 1997). The first well known institutions were asylums, and Shorter (1997) argued that while the end results of asylums resulted in the popular term “Bedlam” they did not always start as a place of chaotic madness, but as a place of safety and care for the mentally ill. 


Shorter (1997) argued that disabled individuals were treated brutally by their families. They were often locked up, beaten or disregarded because the families did not have the financial means or understanding to help their disabled family members. A census taken in the 1870s pointed out that of 164 mental patients, one fifth were identified to be at home, under restraints. Additionally, there were detailed accounts of mentally ill individuals being restrained in other horrid conditions. Shorter (1997) went on to state


If the insane person is peaceful, people generally let him run loose. But if he becomes raging or troublesome, he’s chained down in a corner of the stable or in an isolated room, where his food is brought to him daily...this happens quite frequently (p. 3).


In addition, many of yesterday’s institutions; whether asylums, rehabilitation centers, or reform schools displayed many similar conditions under which the institution started. One such institution, which prided itself as a progressive reform school for girls in Massachusetts, led the way in American institutions which started under supposed good cause (Brenzel, 1980). The Lancaster Reform School brought in young girls with a caring context. Brenzer (1980) told the story of a school superintendent who developed an institution in which troubled girls could belong in a family environment and be reformed in the rehabilitation the institute provided. The original thought for the institution was to help the girls to grow up in a caring environment and “create a sanctuary against the evil of the outside world” (p. 2). 


Rehabilitation was a big part of many institutions, and continues to be a big part in segregation. Part of the sale of institutions has been the opportunity to provide rehabilitation in which only the establishment could provide. Just as quickly as the Lancaster Reform School developed, it changed and no longer provided what was promised. By the latter half of the 19th century Lancaster had become less of a family centered place, and more of a system of correction and confinement (Brenzel, 1980). Brenzel’s (1980) account of institutional settings such as Lancaster is important to look at in light of the fact that it began with good intentions. 


Segregated special education classrooms have been described by some as safe havens for children with special needs. Just as institutions were once thought to be a guarded and caring place where disabled individuals could receive rehabilitation in a safe environment, so are segregated special education classes. Oftentimes special education teachers think they are “saving” their students from the harsh realities of the outside world. Special educators have often shared their stories of keeping their students from having been ridiculed by peers, and bonding with each other. Special educators have long expressed their concern for students in self-contained classrooms, having peers who know how they feel. For the past few decades, society has been quick to claim that students with disabilities gain the following by being in segregated classrooms, including; specialized training of the teachers, individualized instruction, and higher self-esteem for the disabled students. Research has shown society the downside to self-contained classrooms repeatedly, but public school districts in the state of California have relentlessly continued to recommend segregated classrooms. Some special education credential programs focus instruction on inclusive and collaborative practices, it is time to utilize these skills within districts. Additionally, as some districts move towards a more inclusive approach to education, they must acquire the supports and education needed to make this transition successful.







In past discussions of the effect of segregation in the special education field, a controversial issue has been whether individualized instruction outweighs the negative outcome of segregation. Some argue that students who have a disability have specialized needs that necessitate individualized planning and attention. From this perspective educators can argue that special education classrooms are staffed with specially trained teachers who can individualize instruction specifically to each student’s individual needs. Brantlinger (2005) argued that individualized instruction is touted as proven research in special education, and while her experience has proven otherwise, “…others assume efficacy of individualized instruction has stood the test of empirical scrutiny and its validity as a generalized pedagogical practice is established and beyond criticism” (p. 126). Visit the module on Individualized Instruction to learn more.


Consequently, while asylums did not boast individualized instruction, they did claim to have therapeutic approaches that could help those in need. It was believed that madness [sic] was improvable. As Shorter (1997) went on to explain, it was believed that the segregation of being in the institution alone could possibly cure a patient, not to mention the therapy one would receive once inside. The thought of being able to cure madness [sic] perpetuated the notion of therapy or specialized treatment being needed and provided in a segregated institution. 


It is also imperative to look at how the students in the segregated classrooms have felt over time. Jones and Hensley (2012) claimed that examining the effect of self-determination in students with disabilities in segregated classrooms could be extremely useful. Oftentimes students with disabilities may have the skills, awareness, and beliefs that enable them to become goal oriented, self-regulated and develop autonomous behavior (Jones and Hensley, 2012). It is important to look critically at the literature which points out segregating individuals in special education can have dire effects on students as they grow. Jones and colleague (2012) defined self-determination as

An understanding of one’s strengths…together with the belief of oneself as capable and effective is essential to self-determination. When acting on the basis of these skills and attitudes, individuals have greater ability to take control of their lives and assume the role of successful adults in our society (p. 2).


In addition, society must understand that one of the primary goals of education is to help all students grow into independent, self-determined adults. Society should reflect on whether this goal is cultivated in a segregated environment or extinguished.


In conclusion, both yesterday's institutions and today’s special education self-contained classrooms started with the idea of a safe and unique place where individuals with disabilities could take part in rehabilitation and therapeutic benefits which they needed. It has become apparent throughout history that these segregated settings do not live up to the standards to which they first started, and if they somehow have, the disadvantages far outweigh the benefits. The key point to take from this is, segregation may have started with good intentions, but it has always been and will continue to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.


End Segregation Now (YouTube link)

Make sure to turn on Closed Captioning (CC)


  • Brantlinger, E. (2005). Slippery shibboleths: The shady side of truisms in special education. In S. L. Gabel (Ed.), Disability studies in education: Readings in theory and method (pp. 125-138). New York, United States of America: Peter Lang.

  • Brenzel, B. (1980). Domestication as reform: A study of the socialization of wayward girls, 1856-1905. Harvard Educational Review, 50(2), 196-213.

  • Jones, J. L., & Hensley, L. R. (2012, March). Taking a closer look at the impact of classroom placement: Students share their perspective from inside special education classrooms. Educational Research Quarterly, 35(3), 33-49.

  • Shorter, E. (1997). A history of psychiatry. New York: John Wiley.

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