In a recent issue of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Danforth, Slocum, and Dunkle (2010) discussed the historical contributions of Dr. Samuel A. Kirk, a well known special education pioneer and psychologist, to the fields of mental retardation (now known as intellectual disability) and learning disabilities. Although we agree with some of the authors' points—including the assertion that Kirk had a powerful influence for decades on the development and delivery of special education services for all children—several of their statements do not appear to represent Kirk's viewpoints accurately or provide adequate representations of the origins and conceptual foundations of the learning disability field and its relationship to mental retardation. In order to set the record straight, we have used Kirk's exact words within this response from his publications over his lifetime to place into proper historical perspective his views on the origins of the learning disabilities field, as well as the relationship between mental retardation and learning disabilities. Contrary to the statements made by Danforth et al., we maintain that Kirk's beliefs concerning mental retardation and learning disabilities were not complex and confusing.

In fact, the claims made by Danforth et al. (2010) seem to us to be the result of a bit of revisionist history. In this article, we discuss several of Danforth et al.'s comments, including (a) the history of the learning disability construct, (b) Kirk's three claims regarding the constructs of learning disability and mental retardation, (c) the concept of intraindividual differences, (d) the assertion that Kirk left children with mental retardation behind, and (e) the belief in the educability and potential of all children.

History of the Learning Disability Construct

Danforth et al. (2010) asserted that

Learning disability is a recent invention that was born, so to speak, in the historical and conceptual lap of mental retardation. It was primarily developed by researchers working with children with mental retardation and it was crafted as a conceptual outgrowth of the mental retardation construct. (p. 180)

Kirk did not believe that learning disability was a “recent invention,” or that it was “crafted as a conceptual outgrowth of the mental retardation construct,” or “developed by researchers working with children with mental retardation.” The origins of the conceptual foundations of learning disability are nearly as longstanding as many of the other disability categories, and the roots can be traced back to at least the early 1800s (Hallahan & Mercer, 2002; Hammill, 1993; Wiederholt, 1974). In fact, Kirk often noted that the most common learning disability, dyslexia or specific reading disability, has been studied for over a century and has its own history that is totally separate from the history of mental retardation. In this regard, Kirk and Gallagher (1983) stated:

Although the term learning disabilities is relatively new, the condition in adults and children is as old as humanity. Injuries to the brain that led to the loss of the ability to understand language, to speak, or to read led neurologists to investigate the relationship between brain function and communication. (p. 377)

Kirk (1974) further wrote: “Disabilities in reading, writing, and spelling have been of interest to neurologists, ophthalmologists, psychologists, and educators since and before the beginning of this century” (p. 1).

Danforth et al. (2010) noted that the conceptual and diagnostic basis for learning disability evolved from the “Strauss syndrome.” Although Kirk was highly influenced by the work of Alfred Strauss and acknowledged the contributions of Strauss by explaining that “Strauss gave the initial impetus to the field of learning disabilities” (Kirk & Chalfant, 1984, p. 30), he always maintained that “The discipline now called learning disabilities had its beginning in the early contributions of neurologists who studied the loss of language in adults and ophthalmologists who were concerned about children's inability to develop language or to read or spell” (Kirk & Chalfant, 1984, p. 21). For example, throughout his writings, Kirk discussed how the origins of specific reading disability can be traced back to the 1800s when various physicians studied brain injury in patients who had lost the ability to read (Kirk & Chalfant, 1984; Kirk & Gallagher, 1983). Physicians from the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States provided the first case studies of individuals who had lost the power to read—usually because of a stroke or brain injury—and these physicians attempted to identify the characteristics, etiology, and methods that would be most effective for treating these reading disorders (Anderson & Meier-Hedde, 2001). As an example, in 1872, Sir William Broadbent described the cortical damage present in an autopsy of an individual who had speech disturbances and reading disabilities (Broadbent, 1872). Five years later, Kussmaul (1877a) noted that “a complete text blindness may exist although the power of sight, the intellect, and the powers of speech are intact” (p. 595). In this regard, the term word blindness was first applied to individuals with aphasia who had lost the ability to read (Kussmaul, 1877b). Thus, Kussmaul gave birth to the idea of specific reading disability (Hallahan & Mercer, 2002), a type of learning disability that Kirk would study his entire career (Kirk, 1984).

From early in his career, Kirk was fascinated by the enigma of children with specific reading disabilities and how they could be best served. In 1929, he began his master's degree at the University of Chicago. During his graduate studies, he also worked as a resident instructor at the Oaks School in Oak Park, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago), where his job was to manage 50 delinquent boys who had mental retardation (Kirk, 1984). He worked at the school under the tutelage of Dr. Marion Monroe, a researcher at the Institute for Juvenile Research in Chicago and a leading reading expert who had originally worked with Dr. Samuel Orton in Iowa. Orton is often described as providing the first report on word blindness in America and as being the key figure for setting the stage for the study of reading disabilities in the United States (Hallahan & Mercer, 2002).

Kirk, therefore, had parallel interests in both mental retardation and the concept of reading disability, dating back to his early graduate studies and his work experiences at the time. Reflecting on his experiences at the Oaks School, Kirk (1976) stated:

I noticed that the boy was labeled as word blind, a term I had never heard before in my psychology courses. He was ten years old, a nonreader, and had a recorded IQ of 82. The clinical folder referred to Marion Monroe's monograph on reading disabilities (Monroe, 1928), Hinshelwood's book (1917) on congenital word blindness, and Fernald's kinesthetic method. After reading these references, which I found the next day in the university library, I arranged to tutor the boy at nine o'clock in the evening, after the boys were supposed to be asleep. This boy, who was eager to learn, sneaked quietly out of bed at the appointed time each night and met me in a small space between the two dormitory rooms. … actually, in the doorway of the boy's toilet. … I often state that my first experience in tutoring a case of reading disability was not in a school, was not in a clinic, was not in an experimental laboratory, but in a boy's lavatory. (pp. 242–243)

Kirk's first publication based on his master's thesis was a study that explored the learning of simple words by what he referred to as “subnormal boys” (Kirk, 1933). He later explained (Kirk, 1984):

It was at the Oaks School that I conducted my first published experimental project. … I used six boys at the school, teaching them to read five words one day using the look-and-say method, and five words the next day using the Fernald method with the look-and-say method. (p. 29)

As did Fernald, Orton, and Monroe, Kirk found that retention for word learning was improved when tracing was added to the teaching procedure. Kirk (1984) also hypothesized at this time that “remedial reading might alleviate delinquency in some children” (p. 29).

As was the case with other early pioneers, Kirk was concerned about finding the most efficacious ways of instruction for children who were struggling to learn to read. Kirk (1984) explained how Monroe's 1932 book, Children Who Cannot Read, was for a while his “bible” (p. 31) and how her system of diagnosing reading errors and profiling abilities and disabilities continued to influence his work in later years. In discussing Monroe's remedial program, Kirk noted that “Her remedial work was continued by two of her students who studied with her at the Institute for Juvenile Research in Chicago” (Kirk & Chalfant, 1984, p. 32). These two students, Thorleif G. Hegge and Samuel A. Kirk, along with his wife, Winifred, went on to develop the Hegge, Kirk, and Kirk Remedial Reading Drills (1936), which evolved from the study of children with reading disabilities, and their development was “influenced by Marion Monroe and the Fernald kinesthetic method” (Kirk, 1984, p. 32).

Monroe (1932) also created an expectancy formula as a way of identifying reading disabilities that was based on comparing a child's chronological age, mental age, and arithmetic ability to reading performance (Hallahan & Mercer, 2002; Monroe, 1932). The resulting discrepancy indicated the severity of the reading disability. Influenced by Monroe, Kirk (1962) recommended that for diagnosing severe reading disabilities (dyslexia), one would determine a child's reading potential or capacity by comparing his or her Stanford-Binet IQ score and measures of vocabulary and arithmetic computation to the present level of reading achievement (pp. 265–266). This type of discrepancy expectancy formula or ability-achievement discrepancy was incorporated into P. L. 94–142, Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975).

Kirk's Three Claims

Danforth et al. (2010) asserted that Kirk's own thinking about the relationships between mental retardation and learning disabilities was complex, multifaceted, and confusing. They noted that Kirk made the following three claims: (a) mental retardation was an exclusionary criterion to learning disability, (b) a child could have both a learning disability and mental retardation, and that (c) “learning disability was often mental retardation in disguise” (p. 189). Although it is understandable how readers unfamiliar with the origins of these fields could view such claims as “complex and even confusing” (p. 188), Kirk, in fact, viewed them as quite consistent as we discuss below.

Mental retardation was an exclusionary criterion to learning disability

Danforth et al. (2010) indicated that Kirk “came to believe that he could not promote the new learning disability construct without clearly distinguishing it from the older, more established condition of mental retardation” (p. 182). On the surface, Danforth et al.'s statement is true. In fact, Kirk (1977) stated that the characteristics associated with learning disabilities were distinguishable from those associated with mental retardation, and in his scholarly endeavors and governmental public policy work during his years in Washington, DC, he attempted to differentiate between these two constructs. Kirk was well aware that federal legislation in the late 1950s and early 1960s already provided teacher training for students having mental retardation (e.g., P.L. 85–926, National Defense Education Act of 1958, that provided funds for training professionals to train teachers of students having mental retardation) and for students who were deaf (e.g., PL 87–276, Special Education Act of 1961, that provided funds for training professionals to train teachers of students who were deaf) (Kirk, 1984).

Just as he had done for children having cerebral palsy or mental retardation, Kirk wanted to create another category of special education that would protect and provide services for children with specific learning disabilities. In discussing the category of learning disabilities, Kirk and Gallagher (1983) explained: “The label learning disability includes the heterogeneous group of children who do not fit neatly into the traditional categories of handicapped children” (p. 366). In the 1950s and early 1960s, public schools did not provide special educational services for these children. Kirk and Chalfant (1984) explained that the field of learning disabilities emerged for the following two reasons:

First, many parents refused to accept the diagnosis of mental retardation for their children. Their children performed normally or above average on too many tasks. … Second, the public schools did not provide needed services or programs for children with severe oral language or reading problems, unless the children qualified as handicapped in the areas of mental retardation, emotional disturbance, sensory impairment, social or emotional handicap, orthopedic handicap, or speech disorder. The neglect of children who appeared normal but who had specific kinds of learning problems for which there were no services, stimulated parent groups to take political action. (p. 33–34)

Hammill (1993) also agreed that the most influential group in the learning disabilities movement were parents; it was their advocacy work that was primarily responsible for the specific legislation that was passed. In fact, Kirk often noted the important role and success of parents and parent groups, such as the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, in establishing through litigation the rights of their children with disabilities (Kirk & Gallagher, 1983, p. 15).

Kirk attempted to differentiate between those learning disabilities that were attributed to a neurological impediment that resulted in a specific academic problem from the more generic learning problems in children that could result from limited school attendance, inadequate instruction, or other environmental conditions. Such children were excluded from the learning disability category because their difficulties could be attributed to a lack of opportunity to learn (Kirk & Gallagher, 1983). In 1963, Kirk was invited to speak at the Conference on Exploration Into Problems of the Perceptually Handicapped Child. He proposed that the term learning disability be used to categorize these children who did not fall into the traditional categories of disability, but nevertheless had learning impairments (Kirk, 1984).

Kirk was also concerned that learning disability would become a category for all types of learning problems when it was meant to capture only those individuals with specific disabilities that did not interfere with all types of learning. He found that the field of learning disabilities was experiencing the same type of problems with expansion and misidentification as did programs for the educable mentally retarded, stating:

The overenthusiasm for classes for the mentally retarded resulted in their becoming dumping grounds for all unwanted children in the regular grades, including behavior problems, bilingual children, Blacks, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans whose IQs were low, often because of language or cultural differences. (Kirk, 1984, p. 46)

Kirk, therefore, was very concerned about differentiating between children having mental retardation, where their learning was negatively affected across many academic and adaptive learning skills areas (e.g., reading, math calculation, spelling, writing, social interactions, eating, dressing) from those having a specific learning disability within one or more academic areas (e.g., reading and/or math calculation).

A child could have both mental retardation and a learning disability

Danforth et al. (2010) noted that “Kirk steadfastly maintained that, in some instances, a child could have both a learning disability and mental retardation” (p. 187). This statement is true and an accurate reflection of Kirk's beliefs. Because Kirk viewed a learning disability as a perceptual impairment, a person of any level of intelligence, including intellectually gifted individuals, could have a learning disability. In an interview with Arena (1978), Kirk explained this conceptualization of learning disability: “I like to define a learning disability as a psychological or neurological impediment to development of adequate perceptual or communicative behavior, which first is manifested in discrepancies among specific behaviors or between overall performance and academic achievement” (p. 617). Kirk, Kliebhan, and Lerner (1978) also noted that “the concept of discrepancy applies to mentally superior, mentally normal, and mentally retarded children” (p. 27). Thus, Kirk did maintain that individuals of any level of intelligence and with any other disability could also have a learning disability. He understood that comorbidity can exist among numerous disorders, such as a child having both a sensory impairment and mental retardation or a child having both a learning disability and physical impairments. Kirk (1962) explained this in the following manner:

In many instances we find multiple handicaps or other combinations of divergences from the normal. A crippled child can be gifted. A deaf child can be blind. A cerebral-palsied child can have many deviations; he may be partially seeing, hard of hearing, mentally retarded (or gifted), and defective in speech. (p. 21).

Thus, for Kirk a learning disability differed from mental retardation in that it stemmed “from intrinsic cognitive or perceptual difficulties interfering with a child's learning” (Kirk, 1984, p. 40). He further stated:

Most definitions exclude from the learning disability designation those difficulties in learning, which can be explained by general mental retardation, auditory or visual impairment, emotional disturbance, or lack of opportunity to learn. This exclusion factor does not mean that children with hearing and vision impairments or children who are diagnosed as mentally retarded cannot also have learning disabilities. These children require multiple services. (Kirk, 1977, p. 3)

Children who have mental retardation or an emotional disability could also have an intrinsic neurological impediment to learning; and these children would be considered to be “multiply handicapped and remediated as such” (Kirk & Chalfant, 1984, p. 16). Thus Kirk noted that learning disabilities are “not primarily due to severe mental retardation, sensory handicaps, emotional problems, or lack of opportunity to learn” (Kirk & Gallagher, 1983, p. 368).

Learning disability was often mental retardation in disguise

Kirk was always concerned about misclassification of children because it would lead to inadequate understanding of the child as well as inappropriate instruction. Kirk and Chalfant (1984) stated: “In classifying children for instructional purposes, considerable care must be taken to avoid mistaken diagnoses and misclassifications” (p. 14). Kirk was well aware that children could be diagnosed as having mental retardation when, in fact, they did not. He found that some children who were classified as having mental retardation would be better classified as having learning disabilities. Throughout his career, he stressed that the diagnosis of children was for the purpose of remediation, not for classification or categorization. In this regard, Kirk and Johnson (1951) stated: “The purpose of any diagnosis, or the determination of etiology, is to assist in structuring the most adequate rehabilitation procedures” (p. 109).

Concept of Intraindividual Differences

Kirk always viewed the concept of intraindividual discrepancies as a defining feature of learning disabilities, with Kirk and Gallagher (1983) stating the following: “Although such children form a heterogeneous group and fail to learn for diverse reasons, they have one thing in common: discrepancies (intraindividual differences) in abilities and achievement” p. 366). Regardless of the type of disability, however, Kirk was always interested in the concept of intraindividual differences, specifying what children could do, what they had difficulty doing, and, most importantly, how to resolve their difficulties. He commented: “I have felt for some time that labels we give children are satisfying to us but of little help to the child himself” (Kirk, 1975, p. 8). He felt that labels did not translate into intervention needs, and these needs could only be determined through thorough study of each child. He wrote: “Their classification as mentally retarded had little relevance to the training of these children. Each child needed a diagnosis, and each child needed a different program (Kirk, 1984, p. 37). Kirk always asserted that instead of using labels “it is more accurate and meaningful to describe behavior” (Kirk, 1975, p. 9). When evaluating children with mental retardation, he asked the following questions: “What abilities does this child have? What deficits exist? What do we do about these particular deficits?” (Kirk, 1984, p. 37).

These types of questions led Kirk to develop a test of specific perceptual and linguistic functions, the Illinois Test of Psycholinguistic Abilities–ITPA (Kirk, McCarthy, & Kirk, 1968). Profiles were used to identify a specific child's strengths and weaknesses for the purpose of planning the most appropriate educational intervention. Kirk (1962) explained the importance of profiles, stating: “The profiles showed typical assets and deficits in growth which necessitate different educational methods and programs for various types of deviant children; the gifted, mentally retarded, auditorily handicapped, visually handicapped, speech handicapped, crippled, socially maladjusted, and multiply handicapped” (p. 32). Kirk (1984) further observed that “the ITPA was popular from the beginning because it is an intraindividual test, comparing a child's own abilities and disabilities for the purpose of organizing remediation for deficits” (p. 38).

The Assertion That Kirk Left Children With Mental Retardation Behind

Throughout their article, Danforth et al. (2010) suggested that Kirk's turning of his “educability narrative” was a way to promote the learning disability construct while negating mental retardation. In describing how Kirk's viewpoints changed, Danforth et al. stated:

In this telling, the educability narrative had been completely turned, changing from a tale about the need for psychologists and educators to take seriously the learning capacity of children with mental retardation into an account of how the true intellectual potential of learning disability must be culled from the sterile soil of mental retardation. (p. 18)

Danforth et al. further explained that

When confronted with a need to more clearly distinguish between learning disability and mental retardation, Kirk changed his standard tale to address the challenge. He twisted the plot of his educability narrative such that true human potential was now accorded to learning disability, thereby leaving mental retardation as a doubly stigmatized remnant, an infertile field after the professionals had thoroughly harvested all useful learning potential. (p. 18)

Danforth et al. (2010) asserted that “Students with learning disabilities were nuggets of gold among the coal heap, untapped assets buried within a defective population, awaiting discovery and instructional polishing up” (p. 190) and that

Mental retardation, as a disorder and as a description of a population of children, took on a revised, re-stigmatized meaning as the dark foil of the new learning disability. Left behind in the wake of that highly refined diagnostic procedure, that search for real potential residing in learning disability, was mental retardation, the unsalvageable remains, the human residue deemed less educable by the optimistic new profession of special education. (p. 190)

Thus, Kirk is portrayed as turning away from the population of children having mental retardation, essentially leaving these children behind, in a “coal heap” because of their limited learning potential. Danforth et al. did, however, note at one point that Kirk “remained a strong supporter of the educational training of students with mental retardation throughout his career” (p. 190), but later, they more negatively claimed that this message was somehow lost or obscured and that he “also negated that very message in certain circumstances” (p. 190). In addition, in discussing a quote by Kirk, Danforth et al. explained that Kirk asserted that although a child with mental retardation required “care” and “management,” the child with learning disabilities had assets and disabilities that may be amenable to remediation.

To set the record straight, Kirk never negated the message of being a strong supporter of the education and training of students with mental retardation; he only attempted in many of his publications, speeches, and federal government public policy work to clarify the similarities and differences between mental retardation and learning disabilities. Moreover, concerning the aforementioned comment by Danforth et al. (2010) regarding the “care” and “management” quote by Kirk in relation to mental retardation, readers of this Journal and Danforth et al. should be aware of the fact that Kirk stated that the label of mental retardation applies to children who require “certain kinds of care, management, and education [italics added]” (Kirk, 1967, p. 13). Education was never excluded by Kirk from care and management, as Danforth et al. suggested.

Belief in the Educability of All Children

Kirk believed that all children, regardless of type of disability, had learning potential and would be responsive to educational intervention and treatment. He commented that his experience at the Wayne County Training School “pointed out to me that much more could be done with handicapped children than most people believed” (Kirk, 1984, p. 32) and “biased me toward a belief in the power of intervention” (Kirk, 1984, p. 35). Throughout his career, Kirk was a champion for children with all types of abilities and disabilities, including those who were gifted. He was concerned with the accurate identification of disabilities for ensuring the most effective services. Kirk would not agree that he turned his back on children having mental retardation or that these children had limited learning potential. In fact, he commented that throughout his career, it was “a great source of satisfaction to participate and help the parent movements—first for children with cerebral palsy, then for the mentally retarded, and lastly for the learning disabled” (Kirk, 1984, p. 41). When helping one group, he never abandoned the others as Danforth et al. implied. Kirk always believed in the educability and potential of all children and that all children were unique and deserving of the best instruction possible.

Kirk (1962) maintained that one basic principle was inherent in the philosophy of a democracy, namely, that all children have the right to develop to their maximum potential. He commented that the expression “All men are created equal” denotes not only equality before the law, but also equality of opportunity. He summarized his view as follows:

This implies educational opportunity for all children—the right of each child to receive help in learning to the limits of his capacity, whether that capacity be small or great. It is consistent with a democratic philosophy that all children be given the opportunity to learn, whether they are average, bright, dull, retarded, blind, deaf, crippled, delinquent, emotionally disturbed, or otherwise limited or deviant in their capacities to learn. (Kirk, 1962, p. 3)

This, in fact, is the legacy that Dr. Samuel A. Kirk left behind, not just for the fields of learning disability and intellectual disability, but for all areas of disability.

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Author notes

Nancy Mather, PhD (n.mather@att.net), Professor of Special Education, and Richard J. Morris, PhD, Meyerson Distinguished Professor of Disability and Rehabilitation and Professor of School Psychology, Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies, College of Education, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721. The first author worked with Dr. Samuel A. Kirk for many years at the University of Arizona: first as a doctoral student, then as a postdoctoral student, and then as a colleague. The second author was Dr. Kirk's faculty colleague at the University of Arizona.