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Lloyd Dunn: A Pioneering Champion for Children with Learning Challenges

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Before the 1960s, life for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs) was very different from the way it is today. The prevailing attitude was that children with these problems could not learn and would never be able to change or make any progress. Even as late as 1970, many states had laws excluding students with certain disabilities, such as blindness, deafness, emotional disturbances, or IDDs, from public schools.

The NICHD First Grantees Series

Ensuring that all children have the chance to achieve their full potential for a healthy life free from disease or disability is at the heart of the NICHD's mission.

This profile of Dr. Lloyd Dunn is part of a series of stories about the first investigators to receive research grants from the NICHD. These stories demonstrate how investigators have helped the NICHD achieve its mission through innovative research examining a wide range of topics from diverse disciplines.

Lloyd Dunn helped to change all that. He developed new tools that allowed clinicians and researchers to accurately assess the intellectual abilities of children with IDDs. In the early 1960s, he served on a presidential panel whose recommendations led to sweeping changes in federal policy toward children and adults with IDDs—including the establishment of the NICHD. He helped found a national network of research centers for the study and treatment of IDDs—a legacy that continues today in the NICHD's Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Centers. His landmark 1968 paper criticizing the segregation of children with disabilities into separate educational tracks forced scholars and educators to reconsider which children are best served by special education and when special education services should be mainstreamed into the regular classroom.

The Peabody Assessment and Instructional Tools: Changing the Paradigm

In 1953, Dr. Dunn began to work on one of the most fundamental problems in the field of special education. At that time, intelligence tests and other tools to measure intellectual capacity relied on written and verbal questions and answers—which presented a challenge when assessing children who were emotionally withdrawn, had an IDD, or had reading or speech problems.

Lloyd Dunn

Photo courtesy of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, an NICHD EKS IDDRC.

To tackle this problem, Dr. Dunn and his colleagues used a radically different approach: They developed picture-based tools, including the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, to measure and assess language skills and academic abilities. This test was a breakthrough because it provided a scientifically reliable and effective way to assess specific abilities in children with IDDs, and it complemented more detailed assessment instruments. It also was easy to administer, which greatly increased its usefulness for clinicians and educators. Even today, the fourth edition of the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, published in 2007, is a leading tool for assessing and measuring vocabulary and verbal ability.

The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test and other tools developed by Dr. Dunn and his colleagues also can be used to measure improvements over time, thus providing a way to demonstrate that children with IDDs can learn and grow intellectually. Educators can use the results from assessments over time to determine which teaching methods and programs worked or did not work and adapt them as needed to better serve children's needs.

Dr. Dunn and his colleagues also developed other tools designed specifically for children with IDDs. These tools, which are still available and widely used today, use brightly colored materials and appealing hand puppets to help children develop language skills, think logically, and solve problems.

Special Education: Segregate or Mainstream?

In the 1960s, the field of special education began a period of rapid growth and evolution as a result of scientific developments, policy and legislative actions, increases in the number of specially trained teachers, and changes in public attitudes. Arguments that additional specialized services were needed for this large population of children helped solidify special education as a unique and separate entity within public schools with its own structures, training, and funding.

As the 1960s progressed, however, many researchers, health professionals, and educators began to be skeptical about the wisdom of giving children with disabilities a separate educational experience. Some researchers and practitioners were convinced that the disabilities associated with school problems stemmed from children's poor home or social conditions, poverty, cultural deprivation, or minority status, not from neurological or cognitive problems.

Dr. Dunn was one of these skeptics. In September 1968, Exceptional Children published a paper he had written called "Special Education for the Mildly Retarded—Is Much of It Justified?" In the paper, Dr. Dunn concluded that reliance on special classes for children with mild disabilities was ineffective and indefensible. He contended that cursory and inappropriate testing was being used to misidentify many minority and underprivileged children as mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed. As a result, he argued, special education had become focused on the transfer of disadvantaged children from one segregated setting to another. He asserted that this was a civil rights issue because such labeling and placement had highly stigmatizing and negative effects on the children and also because these segregated settings were inherently unequal. Finally, he argued that the more separate special education became, the less accountable it would be.

Dr. Dunn offered an alternative vision for special education. In this system, teachers would continuously assess a child's individual educational abilities and needs. Special educators would be available to all children in school, and they would be involved in the regular classroom to a great extent. Teachers would emphasize motor development, sensory and perceptual training, speech and communication, personality development, social interaction, and vocational training.

Along with other commentaries published at the time, Dr. Dunn's paper sparked considerable discussion and controversy about special education, public education in general, and racism and civil rights in education. By the early 1970s, many educators were speaking out against the existing system of special education and calling for fundamental changes in the structure and practices of the field. These debates and subsequent litigation and legislation paved the way for the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. This landmark act was the first national policy to require appropriate public education for children with IDDs. The act mandated that children with disabilities learn side-by-side with peers of all abilities and that they have an individualized education program to guide their school experience. The act also prohibited discrimination against those with disabilities. Since its passage, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act has been amended and expanded several times, and it is now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Through his research, practice, and advocacy, Dr. Dunn helped shaped a movement that has transformed the way our nation thinks about and treats children with disabilities. Today, children with disabilities have many of the opportunities that all children need to help them grow up and become productive and contributing members of their communities.

Learn More About Lloyd Dunn and the History of Federal Special Education Legislation

Last Reviewed: 03/21/2014
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