UW–Madison’s Lou Brown, who revolutionized field of special education, dies

Lou Brown, a longtime UW–Madison faculty member and one of the most influential scholars and advocates for students with severe disabilities, died on May 1, 2021.

Brown, a professor emeritus who is widely considered to have revolutionized the field, spent 34 years with the School of Education’s Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education until his retirement in 2003. It was in the 1970s that Brown called for the end of segregated services for individuals with disabilities — a view that was considered extreme both at the time and throughout much of his career. Today, however, due to his unyielding and life-long leadership such services are widely accepted as best practices.

Lou Brown

“Lou’s persuasive, plainspoken, and eloquent style inspired generations of teachers, scholars, and administrators to radically reconsider what meaningful education could be for students with the most extensive support needs,” says Andrea Ruppar, an associate professor with the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education, and area chair of special education. “This influence has been exponential, as each person he taught went on to teach hundreds of more people to raise their expectations of what is possible for people with the most significant disabilities”.

“Lou’s teachings prompted the examination of oppression and exclusion of individuals with disabilities as an integral part of equity discourse, calling for his students to act as critical change agents,” says Alice Udvari-Solner, a faculty associate in the Department of Curriculum and instruction, and one of Brown’s former students.

Brown’s most longstanding scholarly contribution came via his 1976 paper, “The Criterion of Ultimate Functioning,” which called on teachers to abandon developmental curricular approaches for students with severe disabilities. Instead, he argued in favor of individually determined and personally meaningful curriculum content designed to increase students’ opportunities to be included in school and community environments.

Ruppar says that Brown’s name today is synonymous with this approach, which is known to most every special educator as a functional curriculum.  These efforts have also raised societal expectations about the potential for individuals with the most severe disabilities to live as full participants in inclusive communities.

Brown was a founding member of TASH, which since 1975 has been the primary professional, research, and advocacy organization devoted to improving quality of life for individuals with severe disabilities.

A TASH post on the passing of Brown explains: “Over 40 years ago, in 1975, Lou Brown, Norris Haring and Wayne Sailor, the founders of what is now called TASH, gathered to create an entity that embodies the very values that TASH represents to this day: equity, opportunity, and inclusion for ALL people with disabilities, including those with the most significant support needs. From that humble start in the mid-1970s, TASH grew into a diverse, multidisciplinary organization that has stayed true to its progressive values and mission and remains a clarion call for inclusion.”

In addition to his national and international work, he consistently partnered with teachers and administrators, securing innovative grants in collaboration with the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) to research and demonstrate effective practices for students with significant disabilities. As a result, UW-Madison — in partnership with MMDS — pioneered the first large-scale demonstrations of inclusive education for students with severe disabilities, serving as a national model.

Brown received BA and MA degrees in social studies and clinical psychology, respectively, from East Carolina University and a PhD in special education from Florida State University. He then served as faculty member at UW–Madison from 1969 to 2003. After his 2003 retirement, Brown continued to serve a professor emeritus, lecturer, expert witness, and consultant.

“Lou’s influence changed the trajectories of many lives of people with disabilities — from lives of segregation and educational neglect, to inclusive and expansive opportunities in inclusive schools, access to communication, and high expectations,” says Ruppar. “As a field, we aren’t nearly to the finish line of achieving that vision. However, most people will recognize that Lou’s ideas, which were once considered radical, are now understood to be reasonable, attainable, and moral.”