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This period was marked by the emergence of special education. As teachers in public schools became aware of the increasing numbers of students with learning disabilities who were labeled "backward" or "feebleminded," they called for special classes and teachers to educate them. Rhode Island opened the first public special education class in the U.S. in 1896. By 1923, almost 34,000 students were in special education classes.

In search of training techniques for these children, the schools turned to the institutions. Some institutions expanded their facilities to incorporate "special" schools. Other institutions offered classes to school teachers on training techniques.


During the early years of special education, however, the "menace" theme was prevalent. While many teachers believed in the benefits of special education, professionals such as Dr. Goddard proclaimed that mental retardation was hereditary, a social problem, and could not be improved by education.

Even professional publications perpetuated this message. The Almosts: A Study of the Feeble-Minded was a popular textbook. The "Almosts" referred to people with mental retardation as almost human.

In this atmosphere, families who had a child labeled "feebleminded" were stigmatized as morally bad or genetically flawed. The message given to families was to institutionalize their children or keep them out of sight.