Special education was confined to the private or voluntary sector in 19th-century Melbourne. The Deaf and Dumb Institution (now the Victorian College for the Deaf), founded in 1860, and the Blind Asylum (now Vision Australia), founded in 1867, were both charitable foundations which accepted a small number of paying pupils. Compulsory education, introduced in 1872, made no distinction as to the ability of children but, four years later, children with intellectual disabilities were exempted from the Act. A Moonee Ponds private school, which opened in 1881, and the Kew Cottages school, operating from 1887, were the only recognition that such children needed an education.
The move for state-funded special education arose more from a desire to exclude than include children with disabilities. Although the government had the power to establish special schools from 1890, it was 1912 before it accepted that it had an obligation to do so. New regulations provided for the establishment of special schools and gave the minister the power to admit or exclude any pupil on the advice of the School Medical Service. The existing special schools came under the control of the Education Department, which established schools of its own: Bell Street, Fitzroy, for children with intellectual disabilities in 1913; a correspondence school for home-based and hospital-bound children in 1914; and an open-air school in Blackburn for undernourished inner-suburban children in 1915.
The Department assumed responsibility for schools in hospitals and other institutions for children with physical and intellectual disabilities during the interwar years. The range of special schools continued to expand in the postwar period catering for the partially sighted, deaf-blind and intellectually disabled children across the metropolitan area. During this period the Catholic education system also established special schools for deaf, blind and intellectually disabled children.
The recognition in 1973 that all children, whatever their disability, had the right to an education created the potential for a massive expansion in special education, but this was thwarted by an emerging argument against educational segregation. Integration policies, implemented over the following decade, recognise the right of all children to an education within their local community, with buildings being modified and integration aides employed to cater for individual needs. Although most of the established special schools have survived this ideological shift, many have substantially changed their practice, working in co-operation with the wider school system.