CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION
Bill of Right in Action
Fall 1996 (12:4)
Updated June 2000
New Claims for Equal Protection
Under the requirements of a federal law, more disabled students than ever before are being included in regular classrooms. Is this the best way to educate them?
John differs from other students at his high school. He has a severe disability called Down's syndrome. This is an inherited condition that can cause mental and developmental disabilities. John's I.Q. is 50 (100 is considered normal).
Twenty years ago, it is likely he would have been placed in a hospital or some other institution, hidden away from the rest of society. Only a few years ago, John would have been in a special education classroom all day with little, if any, contact with the non-disabled students at his high school. Today he attends regular classes with non-disabled students most of the day.
With his limited intelligence and vocabulary, John can never learn academics as well as his classmates. But with help from others and modified lessons, he can learn some things. Even more importantly, John will have the opportunity to pick up some language skills and learn to relate better to the "normal world" just by having daily contact with ordinary high school students. In this way, John will have a chance to reach his full potential.
John is among a growing number of moderate to severely disabled young people who are being mainstreamed into regular school classes, largely because of the insistence of their parents backed up by federal law. Some of these students have mental and developmental disabilities like John. Others are blind, deaf, physically disabled, or speech handicapped. Some have reading or other learning disabilities, often caused by brain injury.
As more disabled students attend regular school programs, some people wonder if this is the best way to educate them. Schooling for "exceptional children" has undergone many changes over the years. But the question remains: What should be done with the child who is different?
Educating the Child Who Is Different
Before 1700, there was little toleration for anyone who was different in Europe and America. People who were blind, deaf, crippled, or mentally slow were often abused, condemned as incapable of improvement, or simply forgotten. But in the mid-1700s, the French Enlightenment began to spread the idea of helping the weak and disabled.
In 1817, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet , a teacher of the deaf, opened the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb [speechless] Persons. This was the first school in America designed to serve a disabled group.
The Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Children, one of the first institutions set up specifically for children with mental and developmental disibilities, was established in 1850. At this time, most caregivers believed that disabled young people needed to live in institutions apart from their families.
The first important challenge to institutionalizing disabled children occurred toward the end of the 1800s. Alexander Graham Bell , the inventor of the telephone, believed that keeping the deaf together in institutions did not help them. Bell explained his views in a letter to Helen Keller , who later became famous for overcoming her complete loss of sight and hearing. "Exclusive association with one another," Bell wrote, "only aggravates the peculiarities that differentiate them from other people, whereas, it is our object by instruction, to do away with these differences, to the greatest extent possible." Bell went on to be an advocate for including deaf, blind, and children with mental and developmental disibilities in the public schools.
Can a person completely blind and deaf from early childhood ever live in "normal society"? Can such a person make a difference in the world? Helen Keller did.
When she was 18 months old, Helen Keller suffered from a fever that left her completely blind and deaf. Since she was so young, her deafness prevented her from learning to speak. But Helen overcame her disabilities after her father brought a young teacher into her life.
Anne Sullivan, herself blind until several operations restored useful sight, taught Helen letters and words by spelling them on the palm of her hand. Helen, however, had to discover for herself that these words were associated with real things and ideas. Working with Anne, Helen was able to learn how to read (using braille), write (using a braille typewriter), and even speak.
Helen went on to graduate with honors from Radcliffe College in 1904. She then wrote many books and articles about blindness, deafness, social issues, and women's rights. Her works have been translated into more than 50 languages. She traveled to many countries and was honored for her work on behalf of the disabled. When she died in 1968 at age 88, she had made an unforgettable mark on the world.
At the turn of the century, the number of children attending public schools increased dramatically due to compulsory education and child labor laws as well as a huge increase in immigrants from Europe. Many public schools developed special education for disabled children. This usually involved creating separate classes. In 1899, Michigan introduced these classes on a state-wide basis. By the 1920s, special education had become well established with its own curriculum and teachers throughout the nation.
For the next 50 years, special education took place mostly in isolated classrooms where disabled children seldom mixed with their non-disabled peers. In the early 1970s, however, a few parents of disabled children began to challenge what they saw as a segregated form of education. They believed this type of education narrowed what their children could learn and become in society. This viewpoint was supported by studies showing almost 60 percent of exceptional children not being adequately served by the schools.
Reformers proposed a different approach called mainstreaming. First successfully used in Denmark and Sweden, mainstreaming means including as many disabled students as possible in regular school classrooms.
The Inclusion Movement
In 1975, Congress passed major legislation that attempted to correct the failure of schools to provide an adequate education for many disabled youth. In doing this, Congress rejected isolating these students in their own classrooms in favor of integrating them with non-disabled students in regular classes.
Now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, this federal law requires an appropriate public education for disabled children and young adults aged 3-21. The law does not demand that all disabled students be put into regular classrooms. Rather, students with disabilities must be placed, on a case-by-case basis, in the "least restrictive environment appropriate."
Under the federal law, schools have an obligation to provide individualized help for disabled students so that they will experience success in regular classrooms. This help might include aides, special equipment, and modified lessons and class work as well as the services of psychologists or other professionals. But if instruction in a regular classroom, even with this help, does not benefit a disabled student, he or she may still be placed in a more restricted setting. This could be a combination of regular classes and a special education class, a special class alone, a special school, home instruction, or even a hospital or some other institution. Whichever educational setting works best and is the least restrictive for the student is where that student should be placed.
Although an important reason for placing a disabled student in a regular classroom is to maximize his or her academic achievement, this is not the only purpose. Many of these young people benefit greatly by learning language, appropriate behavior, and other social skills from their non-disabled classmates. This helps to prepare disabled youngsters for the real world later in life. These social experiences in a regular classroom cannot be duplicated in a special education class or separate school settings.
In lawsuits concerning student placements, courts have generally supported including students with disabilities in the regular school environment unless school districts can prove these children are not benefiting academically or socially. Only in rare cases have the courts decided that a disabled student would benefit more from an education in a separate special class or school.
Despite the law, many today still have doubts about the wisdom of including nearly all disabled children, especially those with severe and multiple disabilities, in regular classrooms. Critics say that regular teachers are not trained to teach these children. Also, many school districts lack services needed to help disabled students succeed in a regular school setting. Jim Kauffman, professor of education at the University of Virginia, argues that "we need different instruction for different kids, and you can't have all types of instruction happening in the same place at the same time."
Others worry about the effect of mainstreaming on regular students as well as special education students. When a special education student is in a regular classroom, can teachers devote enough time to all students? In a survey sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), 60 percent of the teachers surveyed said they could not devote enough time to special education students. Forty-seven percent said they couldn't pay enough attention to other students. AFT President Albert Shanker says, "Both special education and regular education students appear to be victims of lofty ideals and poor policy. It's unfortunate that school systems are jumping on a bandwagon that is . . . bound to impede student achievement."
Making Inclusion Work
Is inclusion in regular classrooms working? Researchers are just beginning to report results of studies comparing the achievement of disabled students in inclusive regular classes with those in separate special education settings. So far, the students in the inclusive classes seem to be doing a little better, particularly in the social skills area.
The early studies also indicate that the non-disabled students do not suffer academically because of the special attention given disabled students in their classes. In fact, there are potential benefits for non-disabled children such as reducing their fear of others who are very different from themselves.
One of the biggest issues concerning inclusion is how to make it work well. Much centers around the regular teacher who often needs training and ongoing help to modify his or her instruction and assignments in order to include those students with certain disabilities. Often, by adopting non-traditional teaching methods such as cooperative-learning groups, peer tutoring, learning portfolios, and oral tests, all students in the class will benefit. In some instances, teachers will have to customize assignments to take into account a student's special disability.
For Discussion and Writing
- How were children with disabilities educated in the past?
- Federal law requires that students with physical, sensory, mental, and learning disabilities must be placed in the "least restrictive environment appropriate." What does this mean? What are the different educational environments available for disabled students?
- Why are disabled students included in regular school classes today?
For Further Reading
Mainstreaming Strategies: A web page containing links to articles and sites about mainstreaming.
A C T I V I T Y
How Can Disabled Students Be Included?
- Form six groups. The students in each group will make up a support team for one imaginary disabled student in their class as described below.
- The job of each support team is to brainstorm ways to modify the activities, homework, projects, and tests of the class so that disabled classmates will be able to participate and learn as much as possible together with the other students.
- Finally, the support teams should present to the class their ideas for modifying the class work of classmates with different disabilities. A team's presentation should include suggestions for teacher instructions, assignments, tests, and student participation that would help make the classroom a better place for the disabled student.
Diana (90 I.Q.): Due to cerebral palsy, Diana has great difficulty with muscular coordination and speaking clearly.
Jeremy (110 I.Q.): Jeremy had a skiing accident a year ago which left him immobile below the neck. An aide moves him in a wheelchair from class to class and assists him in other ways at school.
Latasha (100 I.Q.): Latasha has been totally deaf since birth. Because she cannot hear, she also has not learned to speak normally.
Carlos (100 I.Q.): Carlos was blinded in an automobile accident at age 5. Today, he has a seeing-eye dog that guides him around school.
Maria (100 I.Q.): Brain damage at birth left Maria with a number of learning disabilities. She has difficulty reading, writing, and concentrating for more than short periods of time.
John (50 I.Q.): This is the Down's syndrome student described in the article.