There have always been disabled and gifted children. However, special education programs are relatively new. Historically, people with disabilities were often placed in hospitals, asylums, or other institutions that provided little, if any, education. French physician and educator Jean Marc Gaspard Itard was one of the earliest teachers to argue that special teaching methods could be effective in educating disabled children. In 1801 Itard discovered a young boy roaming wild in the woods of France. Between 1801 and 1805 Itard used systematic techniques to teach the boy, named Victor, how to communicate with others and how to perform daily living skills, such as dressing himself. In 1848 French psychologist Edouard Séguin, who had studied with Itard, immigrated to the United States and developed several influential guidelines for educating children with special needs. Séguin's education programs stressed the importance of developing independence and self-reliance in disabled students by presenting them with a combination of physical and intellectual tasks.
During the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States, educators opened a variety of special schools for disabled students. In 1816 American minister and educator Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet established the first public school for deaf students in the United States. The first school for blind students in the United States was founded in 1829 in Boston by American physician John Dix Fisher. The school is known today as Perkins School for the Blind and is located in Watertown, Massachusetts. Special education classes within regular school programs began at the beginning of the 20th century. Elizabeth Farrell, a teacher in one of these early classes in New York City, founded the Council for Exceptional Children in 1918. This organization remains the primary professional group for teachers and administrators in the field of special education.
Special education in the United States has been most influenced by parent and professional advocacy groups, federal laws, national trends in conventional education, and the civil rights movement (see Civil Rights Movement in the United States). Despite mandatory school attendance laws for all children, many U.S. schools excluded children with disabilities as recently as the 1960s. Since then, societal attitudes have changed, and federal laws now require schools to give children with disabilities full access to education programs.