“How Much Could They Learn?”

Leonard Blackman sought the full intellectual development of children with mental disabilities

Teachers College psychologist Leonard Blackman, a pioneer in bringing students with mental disabilities into the mainstream of American educa­tion, died in late October. He was 89.

Blackman, whom TC President Susan Fuhrman called “a brilliant scientist and teacher and consummate institu­tion builder,” secured the federal funding to build TC’s Thorndike Hall in 1973 and to establish and direct the nation’s first comprehensive Research and Demonstration Center for the Education of Handicapped Children (subsequently the Center for Opportunities & Outcomes for People with Disabilities).

Those efforts helped launch the inclusive education movement.

Born in 1928 in Man­hattan, Blackman began his career as Director of Research of the Edward R. Johnstone Training and Research Center, a New Jersey institution for people with what was then called mental retardation, serving as principal inves­tigator of an early effort to use computers to teach.

“In the mid-1950s, most children with severe delays were being edu­cated in institutions, with very little attention to the things that were important to real learning,” recalled Blackman in 2013, adding that he had a nephew with Down syndrome. “My desire was their full intellectual development, irrespective of the label they’re given.”

At TC, Blackman set up a multidisciplinary program, unique for its time, that involved not only educators, but also psychologists, neurol­ogists and researchers from other fields.

During that same period, parents of men­tally disabled children — particularly those whose children were housed in institutions — began demanding that “their chil­dren go to regular schools, in their own communities, and with other children,” Blackman recalled. Their efforts resulted in the pas­sage of the 1975 Educa­tion for All Handicapped Children Act.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling that execution is an unconstitutional punish­ment for those considered mentally disabled, Black­man argued in The New York Times that culpability should not be determined by the global definition of mental disability, but, rather, by the extent to which an individual suffers deficiencies in under­standing cause and effect.

Blackman taught at TC for 37 years, mentor­ing hundreds of students, serving as TC’s Acting Dean and, later, as its Ombudsman and Emeriti Committee Chair. He retired as Professor Emeritus of Psychology & Education, receiving TC’s Medal for Distinguished Service to Education in 1999.

Student Supporter

The former Leonard & Frances Blackman Lecture series, which brought many eminent speakers to campus, has been reconsti­tuted as the Leonard & Frances Blackman Research Fellows Endowed Scholarship Fund for doctoral students in Intellectual Disabilities. Contact Linda Colquhoun at 212 678-3679 or colquhoun@tc.edu.