EMU Department of Special Education celebrates 100th Anniversary

Lynne Rocklage (left) and Nancy Halmhuber Navarre (right) standing in front of the School of Education display in the McKenny Hall Art Gallery.

In 1914, Charles Berry organized a program to train teachers to work with students with disabilities at Eastern Michigan University. It was the first of its kind, making EMU’s Department of Special Education the oldest in the country and one of the most comprehensive in the nation.

“This weekend is the 100 year anniversary of the Department of Special Education here at Eastern Michigan University,” said Lynne Rocklage, former Department Head and Professor Emeritus of the Special Education Department. “We have provided services to children and adolescents with disabilities… [The department] has provided training to teachers and speech language pathologists serving kids with handicaps and disabilities across these 100 years.”

According to Phil Smith, former department head and associate professor of the special education department, EMU’s Department of Special Education is world-renowned.

“It was the first department of its kind in the country, perhaps the world,” Smith said.

Much of EMU’s history in special education occurred in the Rackham building, which housed the special education department for 62 years, according to EMU’s College of Education webpage.

“EMU was also the first in the United States to build a facility for training professionals to work with people with disabilities, the Rackham Building, dedicated in 1940,” Smith said. “At various points in its history, it’s been the largest university special education department in the country.”
Rocklage said that Rackham was the only building of its type in the nation.

“It was a dual purpose building; providing school, services and dormitory space for children with disabilities, as well as providing training for teachers who wanted to teach special education,” Rocklage said.

Many standards for buildings, in regards to handicap access, were first put into place at Rackham.
“It was an access free building when it was built, and it was a model building because there was no other building constructed with those kind of features,” said Nancy Halmhuber Navarre, Emeritus Professor for the Department of Special Education. “It was barrier free access before we knew the term. Kids could enter on either level and there was an elevator that could move them up and down. Buses with wheel chair lifts were invented for use for the kids there.”

Rocklage and Halmhuber Navarre both worked to create a historical archive display of the special education department in the McKenny Hall Gallery. The exhibit will remain on display in the gallery for the summer semester, until just before homecoming in the fall semester.

“EMU today is one of the few universities in the nation that still provides professional preparation in all areas of disability,” Rocklage said. “That is a unique feature of this department since its inception and continues to be 100 years later.”

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