Home » University of Kansas » A Look Back at Special Education Through the Eyes of a Retiring Professor

A Look Back at Special Education Through the Eyes of a Retiring Professor

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Sorcha Hyland
Lara Mann
Deb Griswold
Elizabeth Kozleski

By Sally Roberts, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Associate Dean

Reflection on ones past experiences and the impact they might have had is something that often happens at the end of a career. Since I will be retiring on June 1 of this year after 47 years as a special educator, I thought it might be interesting to describe what happened in my life that shaped my career.

I was one of the original baby boomers—born in 1946 about 9 and a half months after my father returned home from the German occupation forces following the end of WWII. Disability was made visible in America as a result of the soldiers returning from the war with physical and mental disabilities from their military engagement. The U.S. Congress responded to the needs of these returning veterans with rehabilitation legislation. While this legislation was primarily targeted to provide servicemen with recognition and support, others benefited as well. For example, individuals with mental retardation were included in the legislation in 1943, making vocational training available to them for the first time.

Meanwhile, I was growing up in a small town in western Kansas that certainly wasn’t prepared for the large numbers of children who would enter their school five years after the war ended. The district would never catch up beginning with the 48 kindergartners both morning and afternoon when I started elementary school to the need for classes held in trailers and under the stage all through high school. Students with learning disabilities and mild mental retardation were simply incorporated into the classes where they sat largely ignored. Some had parents who worked with them to try to keep up. Looking back, I’m certain my younger brother had learning difficulties. My mother taught him to read and I did his math homework. There were no students with vision, hearing, or physical disabilities in our schools. They were either sent away to residential schools or, more likely, just kept at home.

I graduated from high school in 1964 and went to Wichita University for my bachelor’s degree. That was the year that WU became one of the six state-supported universities in Kansas and was renamed Wichita State University. Two things occurred based on the time and location for my college education that impacted my future career. I decided to major in speech/language pathology (SLP) and elementary education. The university trained SLPs in the Department of Communicative Disorders with a clinical laboratory at a residential facility at the edge of campus called the Institute of Logopedics. The children and youth who resided at the Institute came from all over the world and most had significant physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities. There were two internationally recognized individuals in residence at that time; one was the former president of the American Speech and Hearing Association as well as the director of the program at Northwestern University, Clarence T. Simon. The other was Orvis C. Irwin who was engaged on a full-time basis in research. As students in the program, we were trained while working directly with the children and adolescents residing at the Institute. We also participated in Dr. Irwin’s research efforts. By the end of my senior year, I had completed over a thousand hours of monitored direct services to students. There is certainly no better way to learn than with hands on experience!

The second thing that impacted my career was the widespread pandemic of rubella—German measles—that occurred between 1962 and 1965, starting in Europe and spreading to the United States. In the years 1964-65, the United States had an estimated 12.5 million rubella cases in women who were in the first trimester of their pregnancy. This led to approximately 11,000 miscarriages and 20,000 cases of congenital rubella syndrome. Of those children who did not die as neonates, 12,000 were deaf, 3,600 were blind, and 1,800 had mental retardation. Remember, I graduated from high school in 1964 and from college in 1968. The children who were born with congenital rubella in the 1964-65 epidemic were reaching school age in 1970. This was prior to the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act (Public Law 94-142) in 1975 so, depending on the extent of their disabilities, the children were entering Schools for the Deaf, Schools for the Blind, and residential institutions such as Winfield State Hospital and Kansas Neurological Institute in Topeka. No one knew what to do to teach this new group of students.

In response to this burgeoning population, the federal government began providing training funds to develop a group of individuals who were able to work with these children with significant needs. Because of my undergraduate training at the Institute of Logopedics, I not only had the unique experience necessary, but the interest to expand my knowledge in this area. My master’s degree in deaf education was completely supported by these federal funds. When I took a position at the Kansas State School for the Deaf, my students were all deaf and visually impaired as a result of congenital rubella. I was sent to a variety of programs throughout the United States to both receive training to work with these students with dual sensory loss as well as to be involved in research efforts to learn how to better serve this population. To show the impact of the rubella epidemic on U.S. numbers, the Kansas School for the Deaf normally had a graduating class of 15 to 20 students. The year our “rubella kids” graduated we had 87 seniors!

Finally, the history and timing of special education growth through the 60s and 70s impacted my ultimate career path. When the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act was passed in 1975, the law addressed two specific groups of children and youth with disabilities—those that were underserved and those that were unserved. The level of student for whom I had been trained to teach was primarily unserved—the children and youth with significant disabilities who were housed in residential schools and institutions.

In the early days, these facilities operated on a medical model of service delivery. Focus was placed, at best, on care with dignity; at worst, children languished on wards with little to no interaction. When the law was passed, all of a sudden, staff in these residential facilities were being asked to move to a program of active goal-directed treatment, education, and habilitation. The KU Department of Special Education was asked to develop training programs for individuals serving students with the most significant disabilities so that they would not only know what to do, but actually be qualified to receive a teaching degree. In the early 80s, I moved from the School for the Deaf to KU to participate in providing this training.

The other thing that end of career reflection does is to allow one to take stock of what has been accomplished and what is still left to do. The institutions in Kansas have been closed to children, that is a good thing. We have a vaccine for rubella and the elimination of rubella and congenital rubella syndrome is now a goal throughout the Western Hemisphere as well as in developing countries. Public Law 94-142 will mark its 50th anniversary in 2025. We have made great national progress in serving all children with disabilities and providing them with a free and appropriate education. I find, however, that I’m not quite ready to stop serving students with the most significant disabilities. I still want to expand and support equal opportunities to this population. Maybe I will just go back to doing what I did in the beginning…roll up my sleeves and return to the schools and classrooms where these students are being served to see if I might be able to strengthen quality programs for this population.


Cooper, L.Z. (1975). Congenital rubella in the United States. In S. Krugman & A. Gershon (Eds.). Symposium on infections of the fetus and newborn infant. New York: Alan R Liss Inc.


Sally Roberts, Ph.D., is associate professor in the Department of Special Education and Associate Dean for Teacher Education and Undergraduate Programs at the University of Kansas. Her academic interests include individuals with significant disabilities, those with deaf-blindness, and those with hearing loss. She has done extensive research and published in the areas of behavior states, communication both symbolic and non-symbolic, and instructional strategies for students with dual sensory impairments. Dr. Roberts received the Distinguished Service Award for University Outreach and Continuing Education and the University Continuing Education Association Great Plains Excellence in Teaching Award in 2005. She also received the Award for Outstanding Service to Students with Disabilities in 2004, the Outstanding Mentor Award and Graduate and Professional Association Graduate Student Mentorship Awards in 2003; the Graduate Student Award for Distinguished Service in 1991; and the TASH Alice H. Hayden Award for Outstanding Research, Teaching, and Community Service in 1989. She was also a University of Kansas Nominee for outstanding dissertation in1992. In her current position as Associate Dean, Dr. Roberts administers the 29 licensure and endorsement educator preparation programs for initial and advanced teaching licenses as well as the undergraduate degrees in Health Sport and Exercise Sciences.

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