State-supported schools had been among the first institutions for Hoosiers with disabilities. Two opened their doors by 1847. The Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Indiana School for the Deaf are still educating students today.
The school that became the Asylum for Feeble Minded Children in Fort Wayne was established in 1879. It was the first of the state’s institutions for individuals with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. Although they aimed to provide education, those institutions were custodial at best.
“The history of education in Indiana, says special education advocate Pat Howey, “was focused on institutionalization -- the Muscatatuck Center, the Fort Wayne Developmental Center, Silvercrest Children's Development Center -- those were all institutions where we sent kids.” In that era, observes Howey, “the only options for education that these parents had was to send their kids far, far away from home in order to be provided with any kind of an education at all.”
“The only options for education that these parents had was to send their kids far, far away from home.”
However, a few public school offerings began to appear alongside the congregate, institutional approach, especially in the state’s larger cities. For example, the Indianapolis Public Schools offered some instruction for “feebleminded” children within the first decade of 1900s. Indianapolis then added various classes for students with physical disabilities and with medical issues. In 1928, specialized classes for children with visual disabilities began, with instruction for those with hearing impairments available in 1935.
The Indiana state legislature passed a law requiring all public school districts to establish special classes for “problem children” and those “retarded in mental development” in 1931. As historian Robert Osgood points out, this early state legislation was notable in its “acknowledgment of both the presence of considerable numbers of children with mental disabilities in the public schools and their entitlement to instruction tailored to their specific needs.”