In 1960, the Experimental Education Unit (EEU) was privately funded as a small school for children with neurological disorders. Directed by UW faculty, it had one class for preschoolers and two classes for older children. In 1965, the school broadened its focus to include children with a wider range of disabilities, and it began its affiliation with the UW's Child Development and Mental Retardation Center (now called the Center on Human Development and Disability), which is one of the 12 federally authorized, interdisciplinary centers in the nation concerned with developmental disabilities. After several moves, in 1969 the EEU took occupancy of its present location as part of the CHDD complex on the Lake Washington Ship Canal in Seattle.
Over the past 25 years, EEU has provided direct educational and related services to over 2,500 children with disabilities including Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, communication disorders and delays, hearing impairment, behavioral disorders, Fetal Alcohol syndrome, Rett syndrome, and Attention Deficit Disorder.
In this same period, more than 4,500 professionals from the fields of education, special education, speech and language pathology, audiology, occupational and physical therapy, psychology, social work, pediatric medicine, nursing, and nutrition have received valuable experience and training in the EEU classrooms. "Best practices" that originated in EEU research and in its model programs have been adopted across the country and throughout the world.
"Since its beginning, and continuing to this day, the EEU has recognized the educability and dignity of each child in its programs, and has been dedicated to helping families promote their children's learning and well-being," notes EEU director Richard Neel. "Over the years, innovation has been the key to our research and model development programs," says Neel. "Special education faculty and EEU staff, working together, have focused on developing and refining innovative strategies to improve the education of children with disabilities."
Research projects conducted at EEU, and by EEU investigators in field settings across the State and the nation, have focused on a wide variety of issues ranging from studies of the earliest language development and reading instruction, to developing high school curricula for students with disabilities and easing the transition between school and adult living for these youths. Researchers of the EEU have conducted a 15-year study of the differential effects of two different preschool curricula, as well as a follow-up study of special education high school graduates for 10 years after graduation.
"Some of the most innovative model programs have been developed and refined at EEU and then transported to field settings where other educators replicated them," notes Neel. Among those are two early interventions: a program for children with Down syndrome and other developmental delays, and a communication program. Both interventions were conceptualized and implemented with local funds, says Neel. Later, as part of the federal Handicapped Children's Early Education Program, EEU staff were funded by the U.S. Department of Education to help centers across the country put these strategies into practice in their own classrooms.
"The program for Down syndrome children was developed at a time when many professionals were still encouraging families to institutionalize their Down syndrome children, and was therefore extraordinary in focusing on the children's ability to learn in a wide range of skill areas, including academics--for example, early reading," notes Neel. He points out that children educated in this early intervention program went on to public school, from which almost all graduated. "Most of those with whom we are still in touch are employed," he adds.
The communication program was innovative in that it developed teams of teachers and speech/language pathologists who worked together under natural circumstances in the classroom to remediate children's communication and language disorders. "This was an extremely unusual model," notes Neel, "because typical practice at that time was to remove children from the classroom for services in clinical settings only."
The EEU has evolved over the years in keeping with societal changes, while maintaining its tradition of innovation. For instance, federal "Education for All" legislation beginning in 1975, and amplified since then, has mandated that children with disabilities of common school age (6-21) be educated in the mainstream, insofar as possible, rather than in separate facilities like the EEU, explains Neel. "The EEU has responded vigorously to the mandate towards inclusion--that is, educating children with disabilities together with their typically-developing peers. All EEU programs are integrated to include children with a wide range of abilities," he notes. However, the need to provide appropriate education for very young children with disabilities has continued to grow, as has recognition of the importance of the very earliest intervention; the EEU now serves children from birth to age 7.