Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

President Kennedy was admired for his efforts to help retarded citizens, and most people realize that these efforts were motivated, in part, by his personal awareness of mental retardation. But few people know of the dramatic story of personal motivation moving.govern­ment bureaucracy to assist the handicapped in Pennsyl­vania. It has been nearly half a century since Henry Lanius, a blind legislator from York County, sponsored Pennsyl­vania’s first legislation to provide special education for the handicapped. Thirty years later, Gov. George Leader worked successfully for more comprehensive legislation, and achieved what Senator Lanius had hoped would even­tually be accomplished.

For centuries the handicapped were shunned, hidden away or worse. As medical science progressed, so did understanding of the handicapped, resulting eventually in their more humane treatment. But the process was painfully slow. At the beginning or the nineteenth century, treatment of the handicapped was deplorable. Some, however, began to take an interest in the fate of the handicapped, and through the efforts of educators, medical personnel and philanthropists, institutions sensitive to their particular needs were created. In Philadelphia, the Institution for the Deaf and Dumb was established in 1820 and the Institution for the Instruction of the Blind was founded in 1834. The Western Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb began in 1875 and the Western Pennsyl­vania Institution for the Blind opened in 1890. Although these were established to educate the handicapped, they were considered charitable institutions and did not function as part of the educational system.

Because of the belief that the handicapped could not learn like “normal” children and because of the sense of shame often associated with having a handicapped child, many handicapped children were never sent to these institutions for an education. At that time, since Pennsylvania had no compulsory attendance law, it was not unusual even for normal children to attend only a few years of school, if any at all.

After years of debate, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a compulsory attendance law in 1895, but it was not im­mediately enforced. Had the demand existed and all school­-age children attempted to attend classes, space would not have been available. In addition, the compulsory attendance law did not apply to all children. Among those exempted were the physically and mentally handicapped. This neglect can at least in part be explained by conditions of the time­ – the lack of teachers trained to instruct the handicapped, the lack of a methodology for such instruction, the ignorance about the learning ability of children with different handi­caps and the difficulty involved in transporting handicapped children to school.

There were attempts, however, in the more populous areas of the state to teach the handicapped in the public schools. In Pittsburgh, for example, there were classes for deaf mutes as early as 1869. In Philadelphia, the Superin­tendent of Schools, Martin Brumbaugh (later governor of Pennsylvania – 1915 to 1919), established special classes for the mentally handicapped in 1899 and for the physically handicapped in 1902. But, generally speaking, these children were not being educated throughout the state.

The less severely handicapped (the mildly mentally re­tarded – children with speech, hearing and vision problems), on the other hand, were beginning to attend school in greater numbers after the enactment of the compulsory attendance law and the gradual improvement in enforce­ment. These children were, however, creating problems for teachers. The literature in the early 1900s referred to these children as “menaces in the classrooms” and a detriment to the educational process of normal children, who were con­sidered to have the first right to education. These “dead­beats and driftwood,” as they were referred to by one author, were frequently targets of teachers’ wrath; many wanted them out of their classrooms.

Another side to the literature written at this time, how­ever, began to stress the right to an education for all chil­dren, including the handicapped. These voices, often the same educators who considered these children menaces, urged the state to instruct the handicapped not only for their own good but also as a good investment. If these children could be trained to be self sufficient, it was argued, they would not remain wards of the state.

Paralleling this concern was the discovery of the “signifi­cance of individual differences.” Prior to the 1900s, chil­dren who did not excel in school were considered lazy or unmotivated, rather than lacking in ability. Some educators began urging that there be different curricula for children of different abilities, and that these children should be separated from regular classrooms for the benefit of the handicapped pupils as weU as the other children.


Special Education Legislation

Despite this grim picture of the limited opportunity for the education of the handicapped, positive steps were taken in the early part of the twentieth century through executive leadership, occasional legislative initiative and perseverance of educators. Under the leadership of Gov. Martin Brumbaugh, there were a few laws enacted for the education of blind infants and for assistance to students in higher educa­tion. A provision in the School Code of 1911 urged parents to have their handicapped children educated; if these chil­dren could not attend the local public schools, however, parents were to pay to have them educated elsewhere.

In 1917 educators in Pennsylvania began working more extensively on legislation for the education of the handi­capped. Individuals in the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the Department of Public Instruction and the Public Charities Association, in cooperation with national leaders in the education of the handicapped, developed the first special education legislation for Pennsylvania. One member of this legislative action committee, Rep. Henry Lanius, was himself handicapped.

Henry E. Lanius was born in 1882 and raised in York County, his ancestors having come to this country in 1685. After completing his high school education in the public schools and doing newspaper work, he took a job in a mechanical field, in 1902, an industrial accident rendered him blind in both eyes and from that point on he became interested in the welfare of the blind. After losing his sight, be took courses in braille on various subjects from a num­ber of leading universities and was prepared for a public career by some of the best educators in the country. He became a renowned speaker, lecturer and writer. The citi­zens of York elected Lanius to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1912 by the largest plurality ever given a candidate in his district. After serving his district for four terms, he was forced to retire because of an illness con­tracted while working in the war relief program. He re­turned to politics in 1922. however, when he was elected to the Pennsylvania Senate, serving there until his death in 1943. During senatorial elections, he often ran unopposed.

In late March 1919, Representative Lanius introduced his first bill dealing with special education into the House. The bill went quickly through the legislative process and when it came to a vote, passed unanimously. Three months after its introduction, the bill became law with the signa­ture of Gov. William Sproul.

Unfortunately, the legislators were more generous with their words than they were with the money. This legislation, which promised that the state would pay for one-half of the cost of special education classes, went unfunded for two years. In 1921, when funds were finally appropriated, a mere $10,000 was made available for a two-year period. Dr. Francis N. Maxfield, Director of the Bureau of Special Education of the Department of Public Instruction, com­plained that this appropriation was inadequate for the special education classes already formed, let alone for any new ones which would be established. He urged superin­tendents and school boards. nevertheless, to go ahead and establish special classes. He reasoned that then legislators would see that educators were serious about providing special education for the handicapped. An appropriation of $6,000 was also made for the higher education pro­vision which also had gone unfunded since its enactment in 1917.

Henry Lanius began his term as state senator in 1923; in that same year he sponsored legislation to investigate the operation of the residential schools for the blind and deaf. Educators in these schools were trying to upgrade the edu­cation of the blind and deaf on two fronts. On the one hand, they developed better methods and equipment for special instruction. On the other, they urged legislators to adopt legislation to compel parents of handicapped children to have their children educated, and for the Common­wealth to change the status of these institutions from public charities to part of the state educational system.

In 1923, the western Pennsylvania schools for the blind and deaf went to court to have their names changed from institutions to schools. Later in the same year, Senator Lanius sponsored the legislation which authorized the transfer of the residential schools from the Department of Wel­fare to the Department of Public Instruction for funding and supervision. During that same session of the legislature, Senator Lanius introduced legislation to create a commis­sion to study the needs and conditions of the blind in Penn­sylvania. The senator was named to chair the commission but he turned the responsibility over to Joseph Latimer, an established leader of the Pennsylvania Association of the Blind.

This commission presented its report to the legislature in 1925. The recommendations of one section of this report, which pertained to the education of blind youth, were translated into five bills which Senator Lanius introduced into the Senate on February 11, 1925. All five of these bills passed both houses by unanimous votes and were signed into law by Gov. Gifford Pinchot on March 26, 1925, forty­-five days after their introduction.

These five acts provided a wide range of provisions for the education of the handicapped. For the children in the residential schools, the legislation required parents to have their blind, deaf or crippled children educated and author­ized the state to pay 75 percent and the local school district 25 percent of the cost to maintain the blind and deaf children in the residential schools. The deaf were added to the higher education and infant education provisions as well. The public schools were also assured funds to pay a percentage of the salaries for special education teachers.

Governor Pinchot proudly announced in a message to the legislature that everything that needed to be done for the education of the handicapped has been accomplished in the legislative session of 1925. He said, “For the first time in Pennsylvania, education and care for handicapped chil­dren. including blind children, is adequately supplied.” (Governor Pinchot himself had vision problems and was concerned about losing his sight.)


The Leader Administration

When Senator Lanius died in 1943, Guy Leader was elected to his seat in the Senate. When the senior Leader decided not to seek reelection, his son, George, was elected to the same seat. Four years later. in 1954, George Leader was elected governor and, in the tradition of Governors Brumbaugh and Pinchot, proceeded to support legislation dedicated to the welfare of the people of Pennsylvania.

Governor Leader frequently outlined his concept of the role of government to the people of Pennsylvania. On one particular occasion at Elizabethtown College, he stated, “I have tried to approach my office as an active Christian would approach it, with the Bible’s teaching as my guide to action and the Golden Rule as my rule of thumb.” He would assert that if there were Pennsylvanians who were handicapped, then Pennsylvanians must help them; and if there were Pennsylvanians who were in mental institutions, then Pennsylvanians must help them return to their com­munities or make their institutionalized lives more bear­able. “Governments,” Leader stated, “no longer exist only to raise armies, or to prevent anarchy, or to conquer other nations. Governments must be positive, must be muscular in doing good, must be strenuously Christian.”

George Leader practiced what he preached; he did help the handicapped and the mentally ill in Pennsylvania. Early in his administration, Governor Leader called his brother, Henry, who was his legislative secretary, and Dr. Ralph C. Swan, the acting Superintendent of Public Instruction, into his office to discuss the education of handicapped children in Pennsylvania. The governor was aware of existing condi­tions in the state for the education of handicapped children partly because of his background in education (he was trained as a teacher but never taught), personal experience­ – his son had a visual impairment – and observations made while campaigning. He knew that the handicapped were rarely being educated in the public schools and that the private residential schools provided a restricted environ­ment. Where there were progressive districts which had classes for the handicapped, these classes were often con­ducted in grim settings – in basements or attics with the worst, if any, equipment.

The governor asked Dr. Swan and Henry Leader what could be done to have these children effectively educated. Dr. Swan explained that although there was already legisla­tion for special education, it was permissive legislation, which meant that school districts could provide special education but were not obligated to do so. County school boards, two years previously, had also been given the authority to provide special education classes, but this too was permissive legislation. The governor then requested that legislation be drafted which would force the school districts to provide special education for the handicapped, so that if the districts did not, the state could step in, provide the ser­vices and charge the districts for them.

The legislation, sponsored by Reps. Susie Monroe and Louis Sherman of Philadelphia and Jeanette Reibman of Northampton County, was introduced into the House at the end of June 1955 and passed by unanimous vote at the end of August. The bill, however, did not proceed as quickly in the Senate. At that time, Governor Leader was involved in a seventeen-month tax battle with the Senate and, as a result, the special education legislation did not pass the Senate until March 1956. The governor, upon signing the bill, remarked, “I salute the legislature for this action, my heart brimming with gratitude and pride.” The legislation was reported to have been a major objective of the Leader administration.

The results of the bill were soon evident. When Governor Leader took office, approximately 50,000 children were receiving some type of special education, about one-fourth of the number estimated to require it. When he left office, approximately 150,000 children, or about three-fourths, were enrolled in special education classes. Leader, however, did not achieve all he had hoped for the handicapped chil­dren in Pennsylvania. He had proposed to have facilities built at the state colleges for the training of special educa­tion teachers and to provide special education for the socially and emotionally disturbed, as well as for the gifted. These programs did, however, become reality under subse­quent ad ministrations.



Social conditions, discoveries in medicine and education, and new developments in technology undoubtedly contrib­uted to the progressive inclusion of the handicapped in the state’s educational system. But social progress does not come automatically as the result of determining social forces. It takes personal awareness and profound commit­ment by people in responsible positions to take the neces­sary steps to move government from apathy to action. This was the case, at least, in bringing special education to neglected handicapped children. It is an encouragement, in times which often induce cynicism, to produce histori­cal evidence that politics can indeed be a humane pro­fession.


Richard J. Cooper is Assistant Dean of Instruction at Har­cum Junior College, Bryn Mawr. A recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where he received a Ph.D. in foundations of education, the author is awaiting publica­tion of his forthcoming book on Gov. George M. Leader.