Date Presented

Spring 5-1-2023

Document Type



Special Education

First Advisor

Lucinda Spaulding, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Deanna Cash, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Laura Kicklighter, Ph.D.


The American special education system is largely hailed as a beacon for inclusion and support of students with disabilities, but was developed on the back of a deep, complicated history of isolation, fear, and ignorance. This historical analysis examines special education in the context of parallel-developing models of how those with disabilities are perceived and treated in the United States. Rather than juxtaposing the widely-discussed models of disability (moral, medical, and social) with the development of special education, I argue that they are consistent with a wave pattern, initially proposed by disability scholar and advocate Wolfensberger (1969), that traces the rise of the persecution of people with disabilities. Further, through this discussion and review of the state of special education after the period of indictment, I propose two additional stages of the wave pattern, where the values have been inverted from the initial stages and continue into the modern day, reserving a stronghold in the education of individuals with disabilities in numerous ways. By placing these models in conversation with one another, the seldom-discussed complexities of what is taken for granted today are illuminated. People with disabilities deserve more than what they are allotted by the current education system, but until the wave cycle is broken, nothing will change.