By Joanne Eichinger, Ph.D.
Joanne Eichinger, Ph.D. is a professor at University of Rhode Island.
Prior to the passage of PL 94-142, parents fought for access to public education for their children with disabilities. The fight continues now for equal access and equal opportunity. Twenty-six years after the passage of PL 94-142, parents still have to fight for their children’s right to be educated in a general education environment, despite the fact that this right is mandated by law. This should not be, and it needs to change.
“To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children [without disabilities,] and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”
The IDEA Amendments of 1997 put additional emphasis on inclusion. A general education teacher must attend the IEP meeting. Time spent outside the general education environment and the rationale for this placement must be documented on the IEP.
When placement decisions are being made, districts and individual schools all too often overlook the strengths students possess and fail to explore the supports needed for the student to succeed in a regular class. Instead they look at a child’s label or disability and recommend placement based solely on that label or disability – typically in a very restrictive self-contained class. This default option is easier- it simply requires that the students go to a self-contained class where there is room, without considering their individual needs. This is a clear violation of IDEA.
There seems to be some confusion between the terms “mainstreaming” and “inclusion”. Mainstreaming is the placement of children with disabilities in a general education class only if they can meet traditional academic demands with minimal supports, or for socialization. Inclusion is the placement of children with disabilities in a general education class, as long as they are making progress toward the achievement of their IEP goals, regardless of other students’ goals. District personnel often perceive those to be interchangeable; but they are not. Students do not need to “earn” the right to be in a general education classroom by performing at grade level; this right is inherent.
Therefore, inclusion does not mean that a child will not get the services he or she needs in the general education class. The services should follow the child. Many successful models of co-teaching and collaborative consultative services exist to provide quality inclusive education for children. Related service personnel (e.g., speech and language clinicians, occupational therapists) can provide services in the general education class to promote successful inclusion. Because language skills are important in all daily activities, it makes much more sense for language instruction to occur in the natural environment (the general education classroom), rather than in an isolated speech and language therapy room. This also eliminates the need for generalization of skills acquired in therapy to the classroom.
– Parents can clearly explain to district personnel their child’s right to placement in a general education class and ask for the services needed for their child to be successful in that setting. They can clearly state that they will not agree to a self-contained or more restrictive setting for their child and reject any IEP that recommends a separate placement or a change in placement to a separate setting.
– Parents can request that district staff visit other classes where inclusion has been successful and that teachers and related service personnel receive professional training on how to promote successful inclusion.
– Parents can clearly explain that they realize that their child is not functioning at grade level and that this is not their goal. Rather, they want their child exposed to the richness of the general education curriculum and that they will assist the educational team in making decisions about how instruction can be modified to meet the needs of their child.
– If a child is in a regular class and the district recommends a more restrictive placement, parents can:
1. Refer to all records and note if the child has made progress on his/her IEP goals while in the regular class (not necessarily in the regular grade curriculum).
2. Request that services be increased in the current setting if necessary to ensure that the child can participate and make progress.
3. Get the school district to offer supports to the current team to ensure that all team members have the skills they need to succeed with all students (e.g. how to adapt curriculum, how to facilitate participation of a child who uses a communication system or sign language, how to promote a sense of belonging for all learners).
4. If the issue is “behavior”, parents should check to see if the current IEP includes a “Proactive Behavior Support Plan”. The plan should include:
a. Strategies for preventing or minimizing difficult behaviors.
b. Skills that are being taught to replace the undesired behavior.
c. A plan of what to do if a crisis occurs. Parents should be a part of creating a proactive behavior support if they wish.
Should the case go to mediation or due process, parents can invoke the “parallel twin” argument. Essentially, they can provide evidence that children with the same disability and similar characteristics are being successfully educated in general education classes elsewhere. Examples of successful inclusion models abound in every part of the United States.
The following elements are characteristics of successful inclusive classes:
-All students are educated in a caring classroom community. No distinctions are made between students who have IEPs and those who do not.
-The strengths that students bring to the learning environment are celebrated. This can be done by applying multiple intelligences theory in the classroom. The deficit model (or medical model) still prevails in self-contained classes. The deficit model focuses on what is wrong with the child and how educators can “fix” it. The strengths model looks at the child’s capabilities as well as factors outside the child (e.g., a teacher’s behavior). For example, a teacher might ask, “How else might I teach this lesson so that all students will understand the concept?”
-Students with IEPs should be dispersed throughout the class. Many classes have clusters of desks (4-6) in smaller learning communities. Students with IEPs should be among other students who do not have IEPs.
-Instructional approaches that are successful in meeting the needs of a diverse group of students should be widely used in the classroom. Those include cooperative learning, thematic instruction, peer and cross-age tutoring, differentiated instruction, and hands-on learning. Decontextualized instruction (such as isolated worksheets for teaching grammar) should not be used.
-Individualized instruction, accommodations and supports are offered to students with IEPs when needed (e.g. extra instruction in literacy, adapted materials, assistive technology, accommodations in learning and assessment activities such as extended time, or scribe).
In summary, access to the general education environment is important for students with disabilities to reach their full potential. It is a right under IDEA. Help to make it happen.