Department of Special Education at Eastern Michigan University celebrates its 100th anniversary

Oldest special education program in the country remains a pioneer in the field

by Debra Johnson, Published May 06, 2014

YPSILANTI – It was the summer of 1914 when the department of special education was first established at Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University).

Fast forward 100 years, and you’ll find the College of Education at Eastern Michigan gearing up to celebrate the historic anniversary of its special education program, with events planned for May 16-18.

It all started with Dr. Charles Scott Berry, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, who conducted the first professional preparation course designed to train teachers “interested in the education of the feebleminded.” That training class with the rather insensitive title was held at the Michigan Home and Training School in Lapeer, MI, and the program was named “Lapeer Training School for Teachers.” 


The increased interest in the need for teachers who were trained to work with children with disabilities appeared to be related to the nation’s movement toward compulsory public education for all children.

In 1871, the State of Michigan enacted Mich-Acts 251, which required all children 8 to 14 years of age to be enrolled in a public school for at least 12 weeks each year. The law further required that six of the twelve weeks be consecutive enrollment, however none of the state laws appeared to have any major effect until 1914-1915.  

The results of the 1914 summer Lapeer Training School for Teachers were so significant that the Michigan State Board of Education determined the program should become the permanent responsibility of the Board. The training school was transferred to Ypsilanti, MI, making it a part of the Michigan State Normal College – thus the special education program at Eastern Michigan University was born.

During the next century, the demand for trained teachers in special education at EMU experienced dramatic growth. Some of the highlights include:

  • The first classroom for children with physical and orthopedic handicaps opened in 1925.
  • By 1928, classrooms were in operation for the deaf and hard of hearing, as well as for the mentally disabled.
  • Classes were formed to teach deaf adults speech reading (lip reading). The program was the first of its kind in the nation.
  • The following year, in 1929, a class was established for children with defective vision.
  • By the end of the 1920s, more than 200 teachers would enroll in the summer institute programs, representing 20 states and Canada.
  • In the 1930s, graduate level courses were introduced in the department of special education. 

In December 1937, the University received a gift of $250,000 from the Horace H. and Mary A. Rackham fund, a trust established to “promote the health, welfare, education, training and development of the underprivileged,” for the construction of a building dedicated to special education. At the time of its construction and subsequent dedication on June 27, 1940, the Rackham School was the first building built specifically for teacher training in special education in the United States. With the opening of Rackham School, a new training program known as occupational therapy was added to the department of special education.

In this mid-1960s photo, EMU professor Angelo Angelocci is modeling speech techniques to young children.

The department experienced considerable growth of its programs and staff during the 1950s, and by 1960 the department was home to nearly 700 undergraduate majors. Many new programs were added in areas such as autism spectrum disorders, speech/language pathology and hearing.

“EMU's department of special education has long been a leader in training professionals in how to work with people with disabilities,” said Phil Smith, associate professor of special education and the chair of the department’s 100th Anniversary Celebration. “This leadership has continued into the 21st century with the largest, most comprehensive special education training program in the state - perhaps even the United States, with 26 diverse faculty members who are experts in every disability area.”

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of its special education program, the College of Education has a weekend of special events planned to commemorate the historical occasion.

Some of the events scheduled during the celebration are:

Friday, May 16:

  • Display of special education historical archives in the McKenny Gallery, located in McKenny Hall, from 12 – 5 p.m. Historic photos of the Rackham School, as well as more contemporary photos of the department, will be on display. There will also be books authored by faculty members from the special education department, dating back to the first such publication in 1930 to current day, as well as an array of historic assessment measures that were used to assist in determining if a child required special education services.

Saturday, May 17:

  • Display of special education historical archives in the McKenny Gallery, located in McKenny Hall from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Guided tours of campus, originating from the Porter Building from 9 – 11 a.m.
  • Lecture by Barbara Ransom, from 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. in room 203 Porter Building. Ransom has more than 20 years experience as a plaintiff’s attorney in disability rights and is a keynote speaker in the 2013-2014 Porter Chair Speaker Series in urban education at EMU. She will speak on the topic of "Breaking the School to Prison Pipeline with Advocacy, Common Sense and the Law."
  • EMU College of Education Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, from 1 – 1:45 p.m. in the Porter Building. The ceremony will honor Charles Elliott and Francis Lord, two distinguished professors in special education.
  • Special Education Research Symposium, from 2 – 4 p.m. in the Porter Building. The Symposium will be broken into three presentations and will explore the topics of autism spectrum disorders, curriculum, EMU Special Education Summer Institutes, and speech-language and behavior.
  • Celebration dinner with keynote speaker Barbara Ransom, from 6 – 9 p.m. in the EMU Student Center Ballroom. Ransom will be presenting on the topic, "Public Law 94-142 went Unfulfilled in the 20th Century: Let Lessons Learned Enable us to Develop Each Child's Maximum Potential in the 21st Century."

Sunday, May 18:

  • Casual Sunday Morning Brunch from 9 – 11 a.m. at Bentley’s American Grille, Ann Arbor Marriott at Ypsilanti Eagle Crest, Ypsilanti.
  • Display of historical archives in McKenny Gallery from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.

“We are absolutely delighted to have Barbara Ransom, a powerful advocate for the rights of people with disabilities and their families, as our guest speaker at our celebration,” said Smith. “She will enlighten all of us about the past, the present and future of special education.”

For the complete schedule of all events and details, visit the 100th Anniversary of Special Education event homepage. For more information about the special education program at EMU, please visit the EMU Special Education homepage.

Debra Johnson

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