Teach Them to Climb

By Cheryl Swope, M.Ed.[1]

Even if we fail, those who make an effort to get

to the top will climb higher than those who from

the start despair of emerging where they want to

be, and stop right at the foot of the hill.

– ancient Roman orator Quintilian,

Institutio Oratoria, Book 1


Special education began nearly five hundred years ago when a Benedictine monk established a school in Spain for children whose deafness led many to believe that they could not learn and, worse, that the children were not eligible for salvation. Under laws of inheritance dating back to Justinian legal codes, deaf boys could not claim an inheritance if they could not speak, and “a strong trait of hereditary deafness had emerged among Spain’s aristocratic families.”[2]

The monk, Pedro Ponce de León (1520-1584), using adapted methods of his own devising, taught the boys to speak. Untrained yet creative and determined he instructed the children through written words and pointed out the objects signified by the written characters until they learned. Not only did the children learn to speak but, although “deaf and dumb from birth,” these sons of lords and noblemen learned to read, write, calculate, study history, and the salvific doctrines of Christianity. At Ponce de León’s school for the deaf, some of the boys learned Latin, others both Latin and Greek, and all learned to pray. The boys received the very Word of God.

When Pedro Ponce de León opened his school for non-speaking children with profound deafness, he had no delusions of teaching without the aid of adaptations. His early work remains instructive to us today. Winzer notes:

“Ponce’s work was … an astute application of the sign language he and his brother Benedictine monks used daily. Ponce’s great achievements may not have been teaching speech and language to the deaf boys but more his recognition that disability did not hinder learning and his use of alternative stimuli…. Most importantly, perhaps, Ponce de León was the first successful special educator, and 1578 the year in which special education truly began.”

From this early innovation merging with the Renaissance and Enlightenment came a swift series of highlights. Pardoning the often unflattering descriptors of children, we consider these highlights from The History of Special Education, the appreciated source of historical references herein:

  • 1620 To Ponce’s work Jean Pablo Bonet adds a manual alphabet and lip reading, publishing the first practical treatise, “A Method of Teaching Deaf Mutes to Speak”.
  • 1662 The Royal Society of London receives charter and inspires philosophical inquiry in the nature of language and the teaching of deaf and blind individuals.
  • 1760 A school for deaf children opens in Paris.
  • 1784 A school for blind children opens in Paris.
  • 1791 The first British school for the blind opens.
  • 1793 Philippe Pinel begins humane work with the emotionally disturbed (the “insane”) and decries inhumane treatment.
  • 1800 Itard works with a nonverbal “feral” boy Victor.
  • 1812 Seguin is born. As a student of medicine under Itard. Seguin believes that a dormant or “feeble” brain can be aroused through sensori-motor exercises, so his work with the intellectually disabled includes motor and sensory training, intellectual training including academic and speech techniques, and moral training.
  • 1816 Dorothea Dix opens a school at age 14 and by the 1840s advocates strongly for a humane education of “psychotic children” who today would be declared as having mental illness and/or autism, which we now deem neurodevelopmental.
  • 1817 Gallaudet opens a school for deaf students in Connecticut.
  • 1825 Gallaudet seeks to share effective teaching methods in deaf education and creates a “Plan for a Seminary for the Education of the Instructors of Youth”
  • 1826 A French school opens for the intellectually disabled (“retarded”).
  • 1832 Under Samuel Gridley Howe the Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind (later Perkins Institute for the Blind) opens.
  • 1841 The first public school for the intellectually disabled opens, and in 1848 Seguin comes to the U.S. and becomes head of this school.
  • 1848 Samuel Gridley Howe founds a school for the intellectually disabled because he sees the “failure to uplift and educate mentally retarded persons as morally offensive.”
  • 1851 Howe relates his use of Seguin’s methods in his own Massachusetts school: Begins the day with children assembled for singing and marching. Gymnasiums are equipped with ladders, swings, steps, dumbbells for stimulating strength, balance, and directions. Music is seen as essential to improve listening ability and assist in speech training.[3] Classical educators will note Plato’s insistence upon both gymnastics and music in the Republic.

A Girl Named Laura

Howe continued his work perhaps most notably with Laura Bridgman, a girl who could not see, hear, taste, or smell and who, at age seven, came to the Perkins school. Though he later regretted isolating Laura to the extent he did, he satisfied his hypothesis that all could learn. He took common objects, attached labels to them spelling the names in raised letters, and taught the young girl to associate the name with the touched object. He taught her the manual alphabet and eventually Laura read embossed books, did simple arithmetic, and mastered needlework. Howe wrote this:

“We do not consider blind children as mere objects of charity, but as members of the rising generation, whose claims upon us for an education are the strongest of nature, and not to be resisted upon the ground of difficulty or expense. We have too great confidence in the faculties of the human mind – too much reliance on the powers of the human intellect – to admit that the deprivation of a bodily organ can destroy or repress them.[4]

When the father of Helen Keller, another young girl afflicted by being both deaf and blind, approached Alexander Graham Bell in the late 1800s, Bell contacted the Perkins Institution for the Blind on behalf of the Keller family, and famously Helen’s father hired the now famous pupil from Perkins and this author’s heroine from childhood, Anne Mansfield Sullivan.[5]


Through the boarding schools of the 1800s, it had become clear that children with significant learning challenges – whether autism, intellectual disability, deafness, blindness, emotional disturbance, or learning disabilities – could be educated. However, leaders began questioning the wisdom of excluding such children by means of boarding schools. Consider the plea by Howe in 1866: “We should be cautious about establishing artificial communities … for those who have any natural infirmity, or any marked peculiarity of mental organization.”[6]

Howe understood that such children needed tutorial instruction, but he advocated “separation, not congregation,” both to avoid worsening or perpetuating the condition through propagation and promoting more of the same. He added:

“As much as may be, surround insane and excitable persons with sane people and ordinary influences; vicious children with virtuous people and virtuous influences; blind children with those who see; mute children with those who speak, and the like. Beware how you sever any of those ties of family, of friendship, of neighbourhood during the period of their strongest growth…. Especially beware how you cause him to neglect forming early relations of affection with those whose sympathy and friendship will be most important to him during life.”[7]

In 1874, in his annual Perkins Institute report, Howe urged that “blind children can attend common schools advantageously, and be instructed in classes with common children.”[8] Even if by necessity special classes were formed within the schools, or special day schools were formed, he cautioned against isolating full-year boarding schools because Howe insisted that children with disabilities not be utterly separated from peers, families, and communities.

Nowhere do these leaders advocate full integration with an absence of modifications and methods suited to the disability, but rather that education be specialized wherever needed and integration occur wherever possible. For example Bell writes, “There is no reason in the world why a deaf child might not join a class of hearing children when instruction is given in such studies as map-drawing, writing, drawing, etc.”[9] Then something changed.


At the end of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the burgeoning influence of Progressivism combined social, educational, and political reform with impact in academia teacher training and eventually in schools. With the Industrial Revolution, urbanization of America, and less focus on individual rights within government and individual formation through education, Progressivism ushered in a collective mindset with socializing, conformity, and presumed efficiency resulting in a conveyor-belt educational model. Social goals replaced individual ones and, mixed with European Romanticism, the teacher became supplanted by the sentimental views of the child, his interests, and his preferences.

Within this context, Maria Montessori (1870-1951) melded Seguin’s work with Progressive developmental theorists such as Froebel who, jailed for an unpaid debt, began working in a Progressive school with Swiss educator Pestalozzi. As a Theosophist Montessori intended for child-led Progressive methods to combine with physiological theories; thus she allowed children to choose whichever sensorimotor activities they preferred and work at a pace of their choosing.

Progressivism changed the content of education to become more social and project-oriented and less academic. Map-drawing, writing, reading, Latin, history, geography, music, and gymnastic led by teachers fell away to more child-led, “practical,” and social goals. The entrance age of formal schooling also changed. Whereas education had for centuries begun at age seven after children learned to read at home, Froebel coined the term “kindergarten,” and Progressive attempts to teach reading to the masses began to supplant traditional phonics and sound-symbol methods. This changed not only special education but all of education. Only a select few retained classical principles and methods, whether unknowingly and accidentally or firmly and intentionally.

Gone Too Far?

When Progressives overtook education and, specifically, teacher training programs in the early 1900s, many would argue that education shifted to social experiments, rather than the timeless and primarily academic enterprise of seeking to strengthen the intellect, form the individual, and incline children to that which is true, good, and beautiful. Classrooms became “learning environments,” and with the shift to social engineering, advocacy for full integration followed with legislation in the mid-1970s mandating education in “the least restrictive environment.” In many settings in which time is spent in projects and socialization, full integration poses few problems because with both academic rigor and artes liberales traded for servile arts, nearly any student can be accommodated readily! But is this what we want?

Our Classical Christian Schools and Homeschools

Over the past few decades our classical schools have begun successfully reclaiming timeless methods and content. Recitation, memory work, physical and musical education, strong academics, the classical languages, the language arts and mathematical arts can now be found in most schools calling themselves classical. Now classical educators seek to include children with special needs. Many classical schools are already doing this and some find that the differences are minimized simply by the improved structure, purpose, and order of a classical education.

Now many of us want to do more. We can begin by reminding ourselves that we are not superior to any of our fellow human beings, whether they differ from us in intellect or ability. Neither are children with special needs mere “charity cases” deserving our pity. Nor, despite popular sentimental propositions, are those with learning challenges or developmental disabilities ethereal “angels” superior to children without disabilities! Children with special needs are “able to do anything they dream possible.” We can embrace the reality that teaching children with emotional, learning, or intellectual challenges is difficult, but it is necessary, especially in our Christian classical schools. All are created in the image of God. All in Christ are granted faith by the Holy Spirit working through the Word and adopted into His eternal kingdom by grace alone, lest no man boast. If only in gratitude, we can share our love, mercy, and teaching talents with any child who comes our way.

Rest assured we need not worry about the place or time. We are free to provide an excellent, classical education in any place we choose – homeschools, cottage schools, tutoring programs, classical communities, or classical day schools. We can give specialized support through one-on-one assistance before or after school, in summer programs, a full-year reading specialist, a classroom aide, a tutor, a trained teacher, or a curriculum designed for the child’s unique needs. We can arrange our school day with block scheduling for correct placement of children from beginner to advanced without regard for age. We can offer specialized classrooms for reading, writing, mathematics, or Latin. Increased tuition for the smaller class size, special grants, or donations might enable the hiring of capable staff.

We might open the door to dozens of children with special needs or simply evaluate each child on a case-by-case basis, perhaps with preferential assessment of a child whose siblings also attend, so as to provide a classical Christian education for the entire family of children. This might take the form of a special one- or two-day program in the school with the remainder of the child’s days spent in tutorial homeschool. Options abound as we worry less about where the child with special needs is educated and more about what he is learning, just as we do with all of our students in classical education.

More than anything, we need not relegate the child with special learning needs to the Progressive notion of a menial, “life skills” education. We are forming individuals through classical Christian education shaped by the Word of God. Let the child hear recitations alongside students with clear diction and strong memories. Let him learn to read well, write well, and think well. Let him study the true, the good, and the beautiful in art, literature, music, mathematics, and astronomy, even if adapted to his level. After he has learned phonics and reads with reasonable fluency, let him learn Latin. If the regular pace and program is too challenging for some, create a Simply Classical Latin class for students who need more multi-sensory, sensorimotor instruction, more practice, and a gentler pace. This can be accomplished in any area: history, arithmetic, reading, writing, art, music, science, geography. In addition to visually “clean” materials, specialized, multisensory open-and-go Simply Classical lesson plans are available for each individual subject.

When Parents or Teachers Express Concern

If parents of students without disabilities balk, we can remind them of research showing that all of these areas are improved in the students without disabilities, as well as those with disabilities, when all students interact at least a portion of each school day, perhaps because of improved instruction, engagement, and attention to every child’s ability to comprehend:

  • academic gains in reading, writing, and math
  • better communication and social skills
  • more friendships
  • more motivated to learn[10]

Be creative. Take one student at a time. Place the student with a willing teacher. Common experience supported by recent research indicates that “a positive attitude toward inclusion,” not specialized teacher training, is among the most important element “for creating an inclusive classroom that works.”[11] We can also point out that homeschoolers with no training in special education are teaching these successfully to children with autism, intellectual disability, and specific language and learning disabilities.

Research also indicates that teachers who are neutral or negative about including a child with special needs are the ones who do not feel knowledgeable, competent, or confident to educate students with disabilities.[12] Such teachers will need support, such as assistance from parents as to the needs of the child, annual summer in-service, conferences with special educators, meetings with other classical educators who teach children with special needs, or a classroom aide.

Most of all we can all be reminded humbly of a Benedictine monk named Pedro Ponce de León, who simply determined that he would teach, discerned how the children needed to learn, and then he taught them.

The Climb

A classical education is like climbing a mountain,
each child benefiting from whatever vistas he or she
attains in that upward journey.
– Cheryl Lowe, founder of Memoria Press

Let us see the humanity of the child before us, partner with those who understand the child, whether this be his specialized therapists or his parents, and give the child what Samuel Gridley Howe envisioned ever so long ago, “the blessing of an education of the blind among seeing children.”

We do not seek the dramatic. We do not propose a cure for disabilities. We seek only to educate children with physical, mental, or learning differences with the same moral instruction, academic content, and humanizing influences inherent in classical Christian education. In doing so one step at a time and one student at a time we can teach all children not only to climb, but also to benefit from the view.



[1]Cheryl Swope, M.Ed. is author of Simply Classical: A Beautiful Education for Any Child (Memoria Press), editor of the Simply Classical Journal (Memoria Press), and creator of the Simply Classical Curriculum for Special Needs, www.classicalspecialneeds.com. After earning a master’s degree in special education, Cheryl served children with learning and behavior disorders among twelve elementary schools, married, and then with her husband of nearly thirty years homeschooled their adopted twins, a boy and a girl with autism, schizophrenia, and learning disabilities from infancy through high school graduation. The family of four lives together in a lake community in southeast Missouri.

[2]Margret A. Winzer, The History of Special Education: From Isolation to Integration (Gallaudet University Press).

[3]Annual Report, 1851.

[4]Annual Report of the Trustees of the New England Institution for the Education of the Blind to the Corporation, 1839.

[5]If you have not yet done so, we invite you to consider Helen’s classical education via the Preface of Simply Classical: A Beautiful Education for Any Child.

[6]Quoted in The Contemporary Review, 1870.


[8]Howe, “The co-education of the deaf and blind,” American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb.

[9]Bell and Gillett, Deaf Classes in Connection with the Public Schools, 1884.

[10]Dupuis, et al., 2006; Newman, 2006; Bui, et al., 2010;  Alquraini & Gut, 2012.

[11]Savage & Erten, 2015.

[12]de Boer, Pijl, Minnaert, 2011.

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