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This is the third (and final) in a series of blog posts Jenna Gabriel wrote as part of her work as an extern in State Records. The first and second posts ran in December 2022.

Ilearned many things during the three months I spent as an extern in the archives of the Library of Virginia. I expected many of these things I learned, such as details about the people, places, and processes that contributed to the Commonwealth’s efforts to educate students with disabilities. I discovered overlaps and frictions between the movement that advanced educational opportunity for disabled students and similar efforts to educate students of color. I learned how to navigate the Library’s catalog and how to use a finding aid to seek out specific resources that helped me in my work. I also learned surprising things about the enormity of the research questions I believed I could answer and about how documents that I thought would add a missing piece to my intellectual puzzle in fact only widened the borders around what I thought I was looking for.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the final blog post of my externship doesn’t answer the question I began with this fall, “How did the passage of federal special education legislation create the conditions to sustain race-based segregation in post-Brown, post-Massive Resistance Virginia?” More likely, my dissertation chair, advisor, and the incredible Library staff who supported me this fall all knew it was never going to; I imagine they knew that this question is one that will animate my career or structure my dissertation, not one I could or should have tried to answer in a semester-long externship. However, I am exceedingly grateful to them for giving me the space to try, because it helped me learn to make hard choices so I could zero-in on a scope of work and it allowed me the flexibility to be in conversation with the archives, following the leads that different items prompted, rather than attempting to force the archives to bend to the will of my curiosities.

My last blog post suggested that what policymakers believe about disability has a tangible impact on the types of lives disabled people lead. I began by asking, “How has the language used when discussing disability in Virginia evolved? What does it indicate about the beliefs about disability held by Virginia policymakers and their constituents?” This led me to a letter written by Bill Robertson, special assistant to Governor Linwood Holton, which allowed me to explore the different ways leaders wrote about disability and race and to theorize how this could influence policy. Instead of moving on to a new question after writing that piece, I continued to seek out evidence of a relationship between prevailing beliefs about disability and the public policies enacted at the time.

This blog post explores a particular moment in the history of special education in Virginia, when the passage of a statewide special education law served as an exemplar in the advocacy efforts for federal legislation. Using language from Governor Holton and media coverage from the time, I attempt to link the way people talked and wrote about disabled children to the policies that were passed to serve them.

Virginia first passed statewide legislation guaranteeing special education services during the General Assembly session of 1972, amending a law that merely allowed the Board of Education to offer undefined special education programs to instead require special education programs, now defined as “classroom, home, hospital, institutional or other instruction to meet the needs of handicapped children, transportation, and corrective and supporting services required to assist handicapped children in taking advantage of, or responding to, educational programs and opportunities.” The law further defined “handicapped children” as “those who are mentally retarded, physically handicapped, emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, speech impaired, hearing impaired, multiple handicapped, or otherwise handicapped as defined by the Board of Education” and set July 1, 1973 as a deadline for local school divisions to complete a comprehensive survey of children with disabilities in their localities and a plan to meet their educational needs. This date also marked the beginning of a cycle in which school divisions were required to report annually on implementation progress and future-planning.

In his farewell message at the conclusion of the General Assembly’s 1972 session, Governor Holton hailed the passage of these amendments, saying, “The provisions to ensure that no child will be denied an adequate education because of a physical handicap must also be recorded as a milestone in the history of public education in Virginia.” By October of that year, less than seven months later, Virginia had been selected by the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based research agency, as one of nine states to participate in a program funded by the U.S. Office of Education’s Bureau of Education for the Handicapped that aimed to improve special education nationwide. An editorial published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on November 16, 1972 called this an achievement of which “Virginians can be justly proud.”

In the same piece, the editorial board surfaced concerns with the law’s implementation, recognizing the significant undertaking necessary to meet the educational needs of the roughly 65% of Virginia’s disabled children who did not receive needed supports in the 1971-72 school year. Particularly, the editorial board was concerned with identifying the “most economical approach” for local school divisions. They took issue with the two levers that the law provided: tuition grants to individual families whose children were not adequately supported in the public schools (too costly) and state funding to hire qualified special education and rehabilitative professionals (too great a burden on localities with limited need). In a push for regional cooperation, the editorial concluded that “much more pooling of resources [was] required in the common purpose of helping youngsters overcome impediments to learning that can warp lives and cost the state dearly in human custodial expenses in later years.”

A week later, the Times-Dispatch published a response to the editorial by Mrs. Frances Hallam Hurt, the Education Chairman of the Virginia Commission of the Arts and Humanities. While Mrs. Hurt acknowledged “we are all proud” of the recognition of Virginia’s special education programming granted by the Education Commission on the States, she took issue with the law’s omission of a focus on “another kind of ‘special children’”—the gifted. Though gifted students were accounted for in Virginia’s standards of quality at the time, the 1972 legislative amendments focused only on students with disabilities. Mrs. Hurt wrote of this focus, “We deeply approve help for the handicapped, but we cannot fail to note that these are not the young people we can look to for creative leadership.”

In May of 1973, Governor Holton was invited by Frederick J. Weintraub, Assistant Executive Director for Governmental Relations at the Council for Exceptional Children, to appear in a film providing information about disabled children’s educational rights to policymakers across the country. Weintraub hoped Holton would speak specifically to “the impact on the community if these children are not provided with appropriate educational opportunities [including] loss of manpower, loss of taxable income, and welfare and institutional costs.” He praised Holton’s “foresight in dealing directly with these problems through mandatory legislation.” In his scripted remarks on the film, Holton told a national audience of political and education decision-makers, “If we examine [the issue of education for children with disabilities] from a purely economic viewpoint, the failure to educate these children has staggering financial consequences.” Holton offers specific figures, telling viewers that the cost of providing special education services is one-tenth the amount of institutionalization and a more productive use of taxpayer dollars than the welfare support costs when uneducated disabled citizens are un- or underemployed.

We have no way of knowing if there was a causal relationship between public beliefs about the economics of special education and the specific arguments Holton made to support national efforts around special education legislation. Indeed, additional correspondence in the state archives suggests those economic arguments predated the 1972 educational amendments and were, perhaps, a reason for their passage. However, the emphasis on economic impact as an important consideration in special education advocacy, legislation, and media coverage tells us a great deal about pervading beliefs about disability in the early 1970s. Holton tells us that the nation’s “handicapped children will, eventually, have substantial impact on their fellow citizens,” a view clearly shared by Mr. Weintraub. Presumably, the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial board and Mrs. Hurt also agreed; they believed Virginians had a “common purpose” to help disabled children “overcome [their] impediments” and diminish the taxpayer costs resulting from their “warp[ed] lives,” especially when such children would never provide “creative leadership.”

Let us set aside the fact that, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the creative leadership of disabled adult activists was on display across the country in movements for independent living support and anti-discrimination legislation. The words of Governor Holton, Mr. Weintraub, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s editorial board, and Mrs. Hurt reveal a more insidious belief held by many nondisabled citizens at this time about their disabled peers: that disability is a financial drain on society and a problem to be solved by rehabilitation or charity—a view that implies disabled children are only as worthy of investment as the economic return such investment could produce. Indeed, Mr. Weintraub’s invitation and Governor Holton’s eventual contribution to the national advocacy film suggests that powerful decision-makers knew these beliefs to be widespread enough that an economic argument was necessary to advance a national special education agenda.

This brings me to another question: what do disabled children learn about themselves in this context? This question is far outside the scope of this blog post, but it bears consideration. Special education programs were and remain this country’s primary lever for identifying, evaluating, and supporting young people with disabilities. Such programs are built on the purpose of remediating disabled children’s impairments (and the “warped lives” which they lead) and, in part, on the argument that such approaches are more economical to the taxpayer. With this foundation, how can such programs create the conditions for disabled children to thrive and come to know their inherent value? What effects do these self-beliefs have on students with disabilities as they grow into adulthood and into their roles as community members? What does this mean for disabled students’ desires to persist in their schooling or to participate in the political decision-making processes that affect change? The answers to these questions all come back to the relationship between beliefs about disability and the policies that affect disabled people—beliefs that affect material reality, historically and in the present day.

Jenna Gabriel

Government Records Services Extern

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